Cricket World Cup: Hard work and belief the watchwords for a winner

The Captain: Wasim Akram of Pakistan; Out of ignorance came understanding for a self-sufficient leader.
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WASIM AKRAM is not a born leader. He says so himself. When he first captained Pakistan, aged 25, he freely confesses that he didn't know what the hell was going on. Seven years later, Wasim is more confident: "For me, captaincy is about taking bold decisions that can go wrong, and do go wrong. But mostly, it's about me getting used to it."

Bold decisions that have gone wrong as well as right have created a variable reputation. "Captaincy ranges from inspirational to insipid," said Wisden Cricket Monthly. Wasim is normally fatalistic about victory and defeat: "If the team have given 100 per cent, I'm as happy as if we're the winner." But this attitude has been suspended for the next five weeks. Expectations in Pakistan would not tolerate it. "In Pakistan they are already thinking we have won the cup," he says.

Wasim rates the Pakistan team highly: "The best thing that has happened in the past four months is that the boys have got sick of losing." A Test series was lost to Zimbabwe last autumn. "They wanted me as captain. They know I am a relaxed person. I know my job. I work very hard myself, so I can have a go at them. Plus they wanted to help each other." The reaction reveals Wasim's pragmatic philosophy of captaincy: work hard, have fun, share ideas, and believe in me.

A captain's confidence can be gauged by the amount he worries. No worries about Wasim. He does not wake early in the morning, his mind churning with problems of team selection, man-management or strategy. He is not a complete stranger to unhappiness, of course. Charges of match-fixing brought against him and five colleagues have been set aside for the duration of the Cup, but they have not gone away. "I read the paper, then I get depressed, but usually I don't give a flying whatever you call it. The charges did affect the team, but now I've made them mentally tough. I've told them the only way you can answer them back is to perform, perform, perform. And they've been performing," he says.

In Derby last week, the Pakistan team were working hard under their new South African coach, Richard Pybus. He is teaching them new tricks, and they seem to like it. They are having proper fielding drills ("we've never done fielding drills," says Wasim); he has taught them to slide, pick up and throw ("even I've learned sliding now"); and he gets them into the hotel pool for underwater aerobics.

Wasim Akram wears a shocking green baseball cap and a green and yellow track suit. He is agile and lean on his 6ft 3in frame. He looks very fit, but, as he says, he has been playing a lot of cricket lately. After the tense and rewarding series against India, he led Pakistan to victory in the Asian Test Championship, and in one-day tournaments in India and Sharjah.

He speaks Urdu to his colleagues and quick, fluent English to me, but he grew up speaking English at the Cathedral School in Lahore. He made his Test debut at 18, and his all-round performances are already legendary. Wasim is capable of winning one-day matches with either bat or ball; he was Man of the Match when Pakistan beat England in the World Cup final in 1992. His record as captain is less consistent. Last year Pakistan had five captains (Wasim, plus Ramiz Rajah, Saeed Anwar, Rashid Latif, and Amir Sohail.) Wasim's comeback co-incided with the team's revival, so he is doing something right.

One-day cricket is strenuous. "In Tests you can relax for half an hour while the team is batting, but in one-day cricket, your mind is always ticking. My mind is programmed: you toss, the game is on, and automatically it comes to you. You don't have to think." (There speaks a man who has played more one-day internationals than all but three other cricketers, and has taken more wickets than anyone.)

One of his habits is to look at the field after every ball, often moving a fielder a couple of feet or so: "That can make a difference." Before he goes to bed, Wasim will have a one-man conference for 20 minutes or so, thinking about the toss, field-placings, the bowling attack. There is none of the obsessive South African and English video analysis of the opposition: "We've never had a video; we don't have the management skills, writing notes and stuff. It's all experience-based."

Wasim's principal preoccupation appears to be team selection. "As a captain you should know that you won't be likeable at times, but you have to make some tough decisions." His boldness has been to choose a team mingling old-stagers like Ijaz, Inzaman, Saeed Anwar and Waqar Younis, with talented young men like the fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar (23), the off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq (22), and the all-rounders Shahid Afridi and Azhar Mahmood.

"These good youngsters are lifting us up and we're lifting them up. It's competition all the time when the fielding is on. I tell them if they give 100 per cent in practice, in a game they will be able to do whatever they want. They've got to work hard, like a dog, like we did. We're a lot better side, at least 80 per cent better than the side we had in 1992. Our strength is our bowling and the reason why is variety. We have bowling that can get sides out."

Wasim gets pressured by the first game in a tournament, though he believes his side are more experienced than the West Indies, who they face at Bristol next Sunday. I say they have great stars. "We have more stars," Wasim replies." This instinctive confidence is the greatest single quality of a captain, and Wasim has it.

Referring to the domestic turmoil over match-fixing, he says: "I believe that if I had done anything wrong, God would not have given me so much in the last three or four months." It is hard to think of any other World Cup captain who assumes God is on his side.

THE TEAM: THE MISTER MEN XI

Mister Earnest Gary Kirsten (SA)

Mister Stylish Sachin Tendulkar (Ind)

Mister Elegant Brian Lara (WI)

Mister Thin on top Chris Harris (NZ)

Mister Accurate Ricky Ponting (Aus)

Mister Composed Hansie Cronje (SA)

Mister Wily Arjuna Ranatunga (SL)

Mister Reflex Mark Boucher (SA)

Mister Tubby Ian Austin (Eng)

Mister Noisy Glenn McGrath (Aus)

Mister Silent Curtly Amrose (WI)

WELL I DECLARE

ONLY one of the Chappell brothers made a century in the World Cup - Trevor. His more celebrated elder siblings, Ian and Greg, had top scores of 62 and 50. Trevor opened the innings against India at Trent Bridge in 1983 and made 110 from 131 balls with 11 fours. Only Mark Waugh (twice) and Geoff Marsh have scored more for Australia than the man usually recalled only for his underarm bowling.

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