Cricket World Cup: Wasim on the threshold of greatness

Pakistan's father figure is on a mission to realise a dream and silence the menacing detractors
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WHAT IS special about Wasim Akram's captaincy in this World Cup can be defined by three images from the semi-final.

Before Wasim bowls the first over against New Zealand last Wednesday, his 22-year-old off spinner, Saqlain Mushtaq, fusses over the captain's dress, tucking his shirt into his trousers. The best explanation is that Saqlain is proud of his captain and wants to see him neatly turned out.

Shoaib Akhtar, the 22-year-old phenomenon who opens at the other end, insists that Wasim fields close by at mid-off when he is bowling. If Wasim moves towards a catching position, Shoaib calls him back. "I speak to him before and after every ball," says Wasim. Huma Akram, Wasim's wife, says that Shoaib confesses that when his captain is not nearby, he is off balance.

After the crushing defeat of New Zealand, Wasim stands on the players' balcony. He does not embrace the old sweats in the Pakistan team - Saeed Anwar, who has just scored 113 not out, or Ijaz Ahmed or Inzamam-ul-Haq. His arms are round three of his young bowlers. Shoaib and Saqlain Mushtaq have each taken 16 wickets, putting them equal third among the wicket-takers in the tournament. Abdur Razzaq (aged 19) and Azhar Mahmood (24) have each taken 13 wickets. Wasim himself has managed 14, which puts him in eighth place in the table. The reason Pakistan are in today's final is that all five of their first-choice bowlers are in the top 10.

Last Friday Moin Khan, Pakistan's brave and resourceful vice-captain who has played all nine World Cup games with a broken finger, defined Wasim's particular quality as captain. It was not strategy or tactics, because this is still an unschooled and lightly coached team that has yet to discover the intricacies of video playback and statistical references. Moin called the captain's quality "positivity". That, he said, is why the boys are playing well.

The World Cup has come at exactly the right time for Pakistan, their captain, and their rich collection of prodigious young talent. At 33, Wasim's experience and maturity give him a natural authority over the kids that he found less easy to establish with his contemporaries. Before the tournament began he said that the tough decisions he took included seeing that the youngsters behaved themselves - "to see they're not going out at night and they're comfortable". He also appreciates that, as captain, he is their role model and that he must be conscious of his own behaviour: "If I look worried, the whole team will be all over the place."

In turn, the kids have the confidence and energy to stimulate the senior players. "Our feeling is that we're at least 80 per cent better than the side who won in 1992. It's hard work and application. The youngsters are lifting us and we're lifting them," says Wasim. Glimpsed in the dressing- room, he seems decisive without being bossy. His manner has been easy and polite; he has been obliging, and he has not forgotten how to smile.

IF PAKISTAN become World Champions, the role of Wasim Akram will be at least as influential as Imran Khan's when Pakistan won in 1992. Wasim, however, is unlikely to go into politics. He is confronted by a pressing legal problem that would wipe the smile off anyone's face. He is one of five Pakistan Test players under investigation in the match-fixing inquiry being conducted by Judge Qayyum in Lahore. Being a target of the judicial inquiry makes him angry and disenchanted.

His unhappiness is compounded by the unfaithfulness of the Pakistani board and the violence of the mob. He has recently been diagnosed as a diabetic, insulin dependent, which means an injection before each day's play. He feels the effects at times, though not on the field: "If I do, I'll just go and have a quick sweet." But he understands that it will eventually affect his general health. Wasim does not discount the possibility of a relationship between his unhappiness and the onset of his diabetes.

Only last September he announced his retirement from Test cricket to defend his reputation ("more important than glory"). He had been sacked as captain in January 1998 and refused the job when it was offered again in June 1998. But by January 1999, Wasim was back in the glory business, carrying all before him in India and Sharjah. On Tuesday he made threatening noises about retirement. On Wednesday the threat had been diluted to "anything can happen". By Friday he back- pedalled far enough to say that he had not made up his mind.

He did say what was on his mind. "If we win the cup it will be a great relief for me and for the whole side because we are going through a rough patch in general life. So I think the whole nation will be happy, and esteem will be up as well." Wasim remarks that playing well is a recipe for happiness: "We have been enjoying it for the past six months. No one has got fed up with each other. Winning is fun." He also appreciates that winning well is the best revenge.

WASIM HAS NOT been an entirely sunny character during this World Cup. He thinks the timing is wrong (it should have been in the warmth of July), and he has been rude about the lack of training facilities. He deplores the priority county clubs give to their sponsors rather than to international cricketers. (Since the World Cup is a rare chance to make a buck, indoor schools are turned into dining-rooms.) The nets at Lord's on Friday were the first decent ones they had had in six weeks, he said. There have been mild, and temporary, bouts of paranoia over accusations that surfaced briefly about ball-tampering and throwing. Wasim thought they were designed to unsettle Shoaib, his personal guided missile.

"The last World Cup in India and Pakistan was more fun to play because the importance of the cricketer is recognised more there," Wasim said, although he may be suffering from severe memory loss. After his withdrawal from the India-Pakistan quarter-final in 1996, his house was set on fire and his father kidnapped; the worst that has happened in England is a pitch invasion by Pakistan supporters, inspired, surely, by the crowd's momentary belief in the supreme importance of the cricketers, especially those from Pakistan.

You don't go to Wasim for lessons in logic. It is more rewarding to hear his delight in the uncommon cohesiveness of the Pakistan team. Best of all is to watch his extraordinary talent. He has a modest batting average in one-day internationals (15.90), but his strike rate in the last five overs can dismay the opposition. With his left-arm bowling, his reverse swing and yorker, Wasim is one of the great cricketers who can transform a game, as Shane Warne and Steve Waugh have done this week.

In the past Pakistan's richly talented cricketers have often been all over the place, largely for want of leadership. In the manner of modern captains, Wasim has moulded a diverse group into a unit. He is already one of the world's great bowlers. If Pakistan win today, Wasim Akram will achieve heroic status as one of the world's great captains, too.