Cricket: Well-kept secret of Waqar's delivery: Martin Johnson looks at one of the principal dangers facing England's batsmen in the third Test, which starts tomorrow at Old Trafford

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A GAME of cricket, as any Wednesday night park player who has almost had his nose torn off by a middle-aged slow- medium dobber will confirm, is entirely dependent upon the prevailing conditions. It can take place on a strip of concrete, or 22 yards of suet pudding - but for Pakistan's 20-year-old phenomenon, Waqar Younis, it matters little whether it has been prepared by McAlpines or Mrs Beaton. If Waqar does not care for the pitch, he merely dispenses with it.

Waqar's trademark is a ball that takes around a third of a second to travel from launch pad to target, and swings and dips wickedly late in towards the base of the right-hander's leg stump. In terms of working conditions, England's batsmen are not only entering a hard hat area, but one that demands a pair of steel toe- caps.

With this delivery, Waqar not only renders the pitch redundant, but the fielders as well. In one and a half seasons with Surrey he has taken 170 Championship wickets in 32 matches, and over 60 per cent of them have either been bowled or lbw. Bowled is the preferable option, as it at least guarantees a batsman a semi-dignified walk off, rather than a hobble back on a set of crushed toes.

A cotton farmer's son, and the eldest of five children, Waqar was born in Burawela, in the heart of Punjab, 20-odd years ago. No one knows precisely how old he is, given that filling in birth certificates in rural areas of Pakistan is pretty low down the priority list, and he has the physique of a man closer to his mid-20s than one barely out of his teens.

For reasons no one is quite sure of, collar sizes and inside leg measurements are considerably higher in the Punjab than elsewhere in Pakistan. Wasim Akram is a Punjabi, as are Aqib Javed and Ata-ur-Rehman, and the area also supplies most of the country's armed forces. Unlike India, Pakistan has the raw material for fast bowling.

The system, on the other hand, militates against it. Pakistan's most celebrated fast bowler, Imran Khan, regards his country's domestic competition as weaker than club cricket in Australia, and selection is based more upon nepotism and class structure than on talent.

When the English press played a match against a team made up of Pakistani journalists and local club players in Lahore in 1987, the home team were something like 30 for 8 before a young lad of about 16 wandered in at No 10. He scored about 70 in half an hour, but his place in the order had less to do with his high class as a player as his low class in the community.

The two openers, who scarcely knew one end of the bat from another, were probably bank managers. The banks run domestic cricket, signing up all the promising talent, and employing them mostly in a PR capacity once they have attained international repute. The bank officials wield the selectorial power, and pick their own favourites - not to mention relatives.

Imran owed his own initial advancement to his uncle being chairman of selectors, but unfair though the system is on those who are not well connected, the fact that family is the very fabric of Pakistani culture is best illustrated by the fact that there are no old people's homes. The elderly are all looked after under the family roof.

Waqar has just bought a house in Lahore for his own family, and not even film stars have as much opportunity as cricketers for wealth and fame in Pakistan. It was aggravation to his shoulder injury, caused by crowd delirium when his team returned home with the World Cup, that finally ruled Imran out of this summer's tour.

The romantic version of Waqar's discovery is that Imran was lying at home in bed with a viral infection when he spotted an unknown youngster on television bowling for United Bank in the annual fixture between the domestic champions of Pakistan and India. Imran, so the story goes, leapt from his sickbed to attend the game, and immediately insisted on Waqar joining his squad for the forthcoming one-day tournament in Sharjah.

A more prosaic account comes from Intikhab Alam, the current team manager, who says that the United Bank captain, Haroon Rashid, invited him to watch Waqar bowling in the nets. 'It took me six balls to realise he had everything,' Intikhab says, 'and I immediately told Imran that we had to get him into the squad for Sharjah.'

What is certain, however, is that Imran and Intikhab were instrumental in getting Waqar into the Pakistani squad at the earliest possible opportunity. It is their way to throw youngsters in at the deep end, just as it is the English way to issue their own young players with rubber rings and lead them gently into a paddling pool.

'It's mostly to do with the system,' Intikhab said. 'It's amazing really, but most of our players start learning about cricket at Test level. However, we have expanded to the extent that players no longer have to be in Lahore to get noticed, and we are also working as hard as England at Under-19 level.

'Where we differ, I think, is in approach. When we see natural talent, such as Waqar's, we leave it alone. If faults creep in, we put them right, but we never try to coach them into doing things that don't come naturally. What Waqar does with a cricket ball can't be coached anyway.'

Cricketers being the suspicious characters they are, there are quite a few around not totally convinced that Waqar's talent is entirely God-given. Mutterings about ball tampering are never far from the surface when one of Waqar's missiles abruptly changes direction at 90mph.

At a press conference on New Zealand's last tour of Pakistan, Martin Crowe produced a ball that, so he intimated, bore not so much the evidence of contact with a cricket bat as a combined harvester.

However, nowhere does a ball get roughed up so quickly as on the parched, grassless turf of Pakistan, and it is a legacy of learning his trade in such conditions that makes Waqar (like Wasim Akram) prefer bowling when the ball is older. With the possible exception of Malcolm Marshall, no contemporary fast bowler has swung an old ball more than Waqar or Wasim, and there is even a theory that Pakistani sweat (rubbed in to provide the polish on one side) has different properties.

Intikhab, as you might expect, will have none of this: 'We know why Waqar swings the ball so late, and at such pace, and it is all to do with the bowler. It is, I'm sure you'll understand, our secret.'

Waqar's talent first came to light as a schoolboy in Sharjah, where his parents were living at the time, although he was not terribly smitten by the game until he watched Imran bowling for Pakistan in a one-day tournament there. He went away and studied Imran's action on video, and their master-pupil relationship is still strong today.

Imran first attempted to get Waqar fixed up with his old county, Sussex, who probably do not care to be reminded that they went instead for the Australian, Tony Dodemaide. Later that year, in 1990, Imran bumped into his former Sussex colleague Ian Greig, then captain of Surrey, and after half an hour of his bowling to Alec Stewart in the Oval nets, Surrey rushed through a special registration to get him into their side for a Benson and Hedges quarter-final the following day.

Waqar's potential to become one of history's finest fast bowlers is illustrated by his record after only 16 Test matches of 79 wickets at an average of 19.97. Wasim has 154 in 41 matches at 24.37, and by any standards, they represent a lethal partnership.

David Gower, back in the England side for Old Trafford, says of Waqar: 'When the ball is so close to a batsman before it starts to move, it is horribly difficult to adjust - and the way he races in to you gives you a hint that something less than friendly is on the way.'

Mark Nicholas, who missed last summer's NatWest Trophy final when Waqar broke his hand, says: 'He threatens the stumps more than any bowler I have faced.'

Robin Smith, just about the only England batsman who would rather face Waqar than Mushtaq Ahmed, and who has been on the receiving end of several furious West Indian assaults, describes Waqar's inswinging yorker as 'the deadliest ball I have faced.

'However well you might be playing, this ball is always at the back of your mind, and you can never relax against him. He was obviously not fit at Edgbaston, but at Lord's he was a totally different bowler.'

Intikhab agrees. 'After the lay-off for his back injury, I reckon he was 60 per cent fit for the first Test.' So the Pakistani manager was, presumably, delighted to see him fully fit again at Lord's. 'Oh no, he was only about 75 per cent there. He'll be much sharper for this one.' Oh dear.

(Photograph omitted)