Cricket: World Cup - Lord's swan-song beckons for Wasim

Cricket World Cup semi-final: Pakistan's captain warns of complacency against 'dangerous' Kiwis
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The Independent Online
WASIM AKRAM is considering calling time on his international career, but not before Pakistan win the World Cup. But if the finest left-arm pace bowler in history is to retire a satisfied man, he must first lead Pakistan to victory over New Zealand at Old Trafford. World Cup semi-finals may not be good judges of form, but they are a good judges of character and Wasim's fate will largely rest in the hands of his excitable and talented charges.

"I've not really thought about it all that much," Wasim admitted. "But it might be a great way to finish. We'll just have to see what happens if we get to Lord's. New Zealand are a dangerous side with many all-rounders, but we have 11 match-winners. We are determined to enjoy our day."

Pakistan's cricket officials treat their captains as political pawns and Wasim claims he cannot remember whether this is the third or fourth time he has been in charge. "The players wanted me this time and they have been responding well," Wasim added. "When I first took on the captaincy in 1993, I didn't know what it was all about. I don't believe anyone is a born leader in cricket. You have to grow into the job."

Since bursting on to the scene as a gawky teenager in 1985, Wasim has been a cricketing phenomenon. In a country that finds and disposes of talent with equal alacrity, his sheer brilliance has allowed him to survive. A bowler who can extract pace as well as swing, his is a unique gift, one that has brought him 354 Test wickets and 383 one-day scalps.

He may have slowed a yard or two, but his nous and nerve at the death are unrivalled, and New Zealand will not want to leave themselves much more than six an over should they find themselves batting second.

His achievements on the cricket field have not been without controversy, and his name has been linked to both the match-fixing and ball tampering scandals of recent years. While the latter is a puffed-up irrelevance, the findings of an inquiry into match-fixing, held in Pakistan by Justice Qayyum, will be made public soon after the World Cup. The match-fixing allegations have serious implications and criminal charges could follow.

But if a man should be stigma-free until proven otherwise, the constant Chinese whispers, coupled with a public who tend to take defeat badly - his father was kidnapped and his house stoned after Pakistan lost to India in the last World Cup - have brought constant anxiety, and both are thought to have contributed to the diabetes from which he now suffers.

Over the past 10 years, Old Trafford has been a second home to him and he will relish this chance of a swan-song. The pitch, the same strip on which they lost to India in the Super Sixes, has hardened, its extra pace likely to suit Shoaib Akhtar, Pakistan's awesome fast bowler.

Word around the circuit is that New Zealand's batsmen do not enjoy pace, an assessment borne out by the 62-run thrashing Pakistan gave them in their group game at Derby. If it is true, and the weather holds fine, Shoaib, with a warm sun on his back, could make looking at the speedgun a masochistic exercise for those waiting to bat.

"Shoaib is bowling very well at the moment," Wasim said. "I've just told him to go out and bowl as fast as he can - that's his strength. He is young and although he is the quickest in the world at this moment, he still has to go through a learning process. I would like him to play county cricket for a season, so that he can sample the professionalism."

Professionalism is certainly something Steve Rixon, New Zealand's Aussie coach, has instilled since taking over the role three years ago. But if he can be happy over the improvements made to the fielding, he is not satisfied with the batting of Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan and the captain, Stephen Fleming, which he says is "still in the debit column".

Unsurprisingly, New Zealand feel a used surface will suit them more, in spite of the fact that their star bowler, Geoff Allott, moves the ball through the air rather than off the pitch. But even if Allott and their trio of trundlers - what Rixon calls his "accumulator killers" - have a good day against Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Ijaz Ahmed, their batsman will surely struggle to find ways of scoring enough runs to defend.

And yet semi-finals have been known to buck all theory, the outcome often settled by error rather than excellence, a view subscribed to by the New Zealand captain. Fleming said; "We hope to use the underdog tag to our advantage. The pressure is intense in one-off situations and sometimes the team with the least pressure on them plays the less inhibited cricket. However, you can't give Pakistan the initiative, because that's when their natural flair comes to the fore."