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Cricket: Wasim has pride in his brood

Stephen Fay finds Pakistan's captain fostering a fearsome future
WASIM AKRAM is behaving like a mother hen clucking over the chicks. He worries because they must play in England in May; he harbours dark thoughts about Pakistan having been sent to watch the rain fall in the north while England nestle warmly in the south. As for the white ball, he warns that it is swinging extravagantly, and calls for flatter wickets.

He makes it sound so unfair, as though there was a conspiracy against his brood of promising young men. There are plenty of them for Wasim to worry about. Two of the 11 who played Scotland on Thursday are teenagers (Shahid Afridi and Abdur Razzaq); four more are under 25 (Yousuf Youhana, Azhar Mahmood, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shoaib Akhtar.)

They have "suffered a lot," Wasim says, from lack of practice: "I have been playing here for 10 years, and it takes me three of four games to get my length right." But he is proud as well as protective: "They have been doing well. They're mentally very tough," he says. They need to be; without mature performances from these boys, Pakistan cannot win the World Cup.

One is a celebrity already. The reputation of Shoaib Akhtar preceded him to Chester-le-Street for Thursday's game against Scotland, and Ladbrokes were offering odds against him taking any number from one to 10 wickets - 1,000-1 against all 10. He looks fearsome, arms swinging low during a 20-pace run-up which ends with a furious sideways action.

Gavin Hamilton, who survived Shoaib's opening spell of 3 for 6 from five overs, could feel the bruises on his thighs that evening, and raised an eyebrow when he learned that Wasim had said Shoaib had not been bowling flat out: "He's a quick learner, and he changed his length today. He was three feet further up than in the previous game. The way the ball is swinging, you have to control it rather than bowl quick, but he'll be quicker against Australia."

Shoaib is 23, and he is already well on the way to becoming precious, like all great fast bowlers. He left the field on Thursday complaining of "sore shins". Wasim reacted as if he had heard that one before, and expected to hear it again. He was not at all concerned, however. With Scotland at 19 for 5, Wasim was able to give a long bowl to two more young pace bowlers, Abdur Razzaq and Akhar Mahmood.

England and Australia are strong on the theory of the role of all-rounder in one-day internationals; Pakistan are stronger on the practice. Abdur Razzaq, a modest looking figure, is trusted to bat first wicket down - without success so far; seven in Bristol, 12 in Chester-le-Street - but he has taken 3 for 32 off 10 overs against the West Indies and 3 for 38 off 10 against Scotland. "He's a young boy," says Wasim. "He looks OK, and we're trying him out right now."

Wasim must be more concerned about Shahid Afridi, Saeed Anwar's opening partner. Afridi is a handsome young man, black hair with a middle parting; conscious, you think, of his good looks. He looks older than 19, and the word, as it often is with brilliant Pakistani prospects, is that you can add three or four years to that. But he is still a kid.

Afridi plays the way he looks, opening his shoulders and swinging his bat boldly. But the ball has swung more, and he has been out for 11 and seven. Afridi bowls a bit too, leg breaks.

Azhar Mahmood bowled tidily on Thursday, having scored a vital 37 down the order against the West Indies. The only one of Wasim's boys who is a specialist cricketer is Yousuf Youhana, whose 81 not out after he came in when Pakistan were 60 for 4 won him the man-of-the-match against Scotland. He is a neat, orthodox batsman who waits patiently before hitting out, and he secured the middle order, saving Pakistan from a serious embarrassment.

And we have not even mentioned Saqlain Mustaq, the 22-year-old off spinner who was hit for two sixes on Thursday and conceded 46 runs off six overs, compared to 22 off nine at Bristol. Between clouting him to the boundary, the Scots were impressed by his variety and movement. As well they might be; Saqlain is capable of winning matches.

Pakistan's problem has been unreliable batting at the top of the order (apart from England, whose hasn't?). If the young boys and the old men can sort that out, the young bowlers - plus Wasim himself - can do the rest, and Pakistan could well be on the way to winning the cup. Then Wasim could stop clucking, and start to crow.