Cricket: How a bowling 'freak' became the best: Scyld Berry examines the unorthodox but devastating methods of the Pakistani paceman Wasim Akram

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEVER mind the rumours of artifice on the opening day of this final Test, after Wasim Akram had demolished five England wickets for seven runs on a hot, cloudless day and an unflawed pitch. It is time to recognise this Punjabi for what he is: the most versatile and original left-handed bowler of pace there has been, and probably the best.

Since left-armers who can bowl have normally turned their hand to spin, quick ones have always been rare. Twentieth century challengers to the Pakistani include Bill Voce, E W (Nobby) Clark and John Lever of England; Alan Davidson, Bill Johnston and Bruce Reid of Australia; and Sir Garfield Sobers when he turned his mind to it. The list is not long: in fact the theory was advanced at one time that left- handers were physiologically incapable of bowling outright fast.

Akram can. And yet, in bowling fast, he is the exception to prove the theory. He defies the coaching book and doctor's orders. He is a natural who appeared from nowhere, and has had to modify little or nothing in his basic action to take 166 Test wickets at an average of 24, up to the start of England's second innings.

Bowlers are either side-on in delivery, if they are orthodox in terms of coaching, or front-on, in the modern fashion, which is becoming ever more popular - especially overseas - since it reduces spinal injuries. Akram is both: his back foot is side-on, while his front foot points down the wicket. The effect, when combined with a long delivery stride, is to place exceptional stress on his front leg and on his groin, which has broken down under the impact. But Akram gets away with these idiosyncracies, by having as quick an arm-swing as there could be.

When he was spotted playing in school, street and club cricket in Lahore, he was put straight into the national training camp, to bowl at the best. Being such a natural, he took seven wickets in an innings on his first-class debut against the touring New Zealanders; and 10 wickets in his second Test shortly afterwards. He was 18 - the youngest ever to have done such a feat - and so ingenuous that he had not realised he would get paid for playing.

In this Test match, on Thursday, Akram gave so complete an exhibition of left-arm pace bowling that none of his predecessors could have rivalled it. First he bowled fast from over the wicket, unsettling Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart with short balls, besides making Stewart hobble with his yorker. In the process he and Waqar showed up the counter-productivity of the one bouncer per over law: instead of bowling bouncers over the batsman's head, they were pinpointing their aim at the batsman's chest, and thus more intimidating and dangerous than they would otherwise have been.

After teatime, for one reason and another, Akram found his inswing regularly going. Then he bowled in the classical manner of Davidson and Sobers, trapping Mark Ramprakash and Chris Lewis with balls boomeranging in. But they could not swing the ball away as well, as Akram did when he bowled a candidate for 'ball of the series'. Racing in, Akram whipped his arm over, kept his wrist exactly upright and pointing towards the batsman, pitched outside leg-stump and hit the top of Derek Pringle's off-stump.

This ability to swing both ways can be a handicap: at Headingley Akram moved the ball away too much, like Richard Hadlee before him in 1983 on the same ground, when he could not take a wicket. Davidson, on the other hand, according to Richie Benaud, was content to slant the ball across the right-hander, without doing too much by swinging it away.

Then we were treated to a third form of attack, when Akram scented England's tailenders and was enlivened by a sense of theatre. According to his custom, Akram switched from round to over the wicket, which Davidson never did, except to bowl his occasional spinners; though before the war, according to Trevor Bailey, left- armers like Voce used to angle the ball in like Akram.

He dismissed Neil Mallender with a yorker, which swung in, turned him round, and splattered leg-stump. He dismissed Devon Malcolm with a corker, pitching middle-and-off and hitting off- stump: an impossible ball, given the angle. It was the same delivery which bowled Allan Lamb in Melbourne and decided the World Cup final.

Bowlers batting are the bane and pain of modern professional cricket. They are the main reason why three days are no longer sufficient for county matches on good pitches: it is not batsmen who are batting longer, but well-armoured tailenders scrupulous in their forward defensive. Whatever their recipe, Waqar and Wasim are doing the game a great service by demonstrating how tailenders should be flushed out.

At Lord's the two W's dismissed England's last six wickets for 42 in the first innings and 38 in the second. At Headingley they wiped out England's last eight for 28; at the Oval, the last seven for 25. Some great bowlers, like Dennis Lillee, have not been great at dismissing tailenders: he continued to pitch his normal length and defeated everything. The two W's - and Waqar is still not his fully fit self of last season - are, at their best, masters of the short ball, the length ball and the yorker.

What is more is the manifest enjoyment they find in their cricket, especially when the scoreboard operator places a number six in the wickets column. They still have that boyish delight in physical achievement, which seven-days-a-week English pros quickly lose, even though the tourists have been playing all summer, and winning eight of their 11 county games.

These tourists can do so much for the good of cricket, if they can keep the lid on when the occasional game goes against them. Even then, it has not been Akram who has put the acrimony into this series. While his bowling may be unique to the verge of freakish, he has been a model in every other way.