Work ethic that drives Wasim to greatness

After 17 years of playing cricket at the highest level Pakistan's supreme all-rounder remains motivated by ambition to rewrite the record books
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The Independent Online

Not even Tiger Woods carries a green jacket as majestically as Wasim Akram.

We first meet in the back garden of the Pakistani High Commission in London, where I am a guest at a dinner to honour the Pakistan cricket team. Since England have just won the Lord's Test inside four days, it is less a party than a wake. But Wasim, resplendent in his official team blazer, gives me a gracious hello. The only man turning more heads than Wasim is his mentor Imran Khan, who glides regally through the marquee, bestowing the privilege of his company on each of the appreciative gaggle of guests.

I next meet Wasim in the more prosaic surroundings of the Marriott Hotel, Gateshead. The Test series had been drawn, and England have just been humbled by Australia in the NatWest Series triangular tournament. This time he is wearing a tracksuit but looks no less imposing. He is not surprised that Saturday's final will pit Pakistan against Australia, England having mustered precisely nul points.

"The England [one-day] team is too young," he says. "Anyone who gets 220 can win against England because of their inexperience. At Lord's I knew we just had to break the partnership [between Trescothick and Shah] and that would be it. One-day games are all about confidence and experience. England don't have either, but we are getting there, and Australia have both. They are also very organised."

But not unbeatable. Not quite. And the tougher the contest, the more Wasim ­ dodgy shoulder permitting ­ relishes it. At 35 he is still the greatest left-arm fast bowler in the world, hell-bent on overtaking Kapil Dev's haul of 434 Test wickets to become the second most prolific wicket-taker of all time, with Courtney Walsh over the horizon on 519. Wasim has 414 Test wickets so far. But he does not intend to boost his wicket tally with tail-enders. It is the scalps of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar he wants.

And Steve Waugh. Assuming Wasim plays on Saturday, how will he attack the obdurate Australian captain? "Waugh looks vulnerable when he first comes in, but after 20 minutes it is very difficult to get him out. I got him out with yorkers in the beginning. Now I like to bowl him full outswingers early on, before he has his eye in."

It should be an intriguing contest, for Wasim, like Waugh, has a marvellous record in one-day cricket. He even has two one-day hat-tricks under his belt, one of them against Australia, the other against the West Indies. His hat-trick ball to Curtly Ambrose ­ at Sharjah in 1989 ­ remains a personal favourite. "I bowled from wide of the crease, so he was obviously expecting inswing, but it was an outswinger."

Inswing, outswing, reverse swing, Wasim has it all. As one of the leading exponents of the magical art of reverse swing he has, inevitably, been accused of ball-tampering. It does happen, doesn't it? "Yeah, it might happen, but I am not going to mention it. Whatever happens, happens. You mostly get it [reverse swing] by throwing the ball against the ground. You can't scratch the ball because the umpire will see it. But you have to know the condition of the ball. To bowl reverse swing you have to know what is happening, when it is happening. It is very scientific."

Perhaps his greatest exhibition of swing and seam bowling came in the 1992 World Cup final against England, when he was voted man of the match after befuddling I T Botham, among others, with the ball (and scoring 33 not out with the bat). Retribution, perhaps, for Botham's ill-advised line, back in 1984, about Pakistan being a good place to send the mother-in-law? "I was only 17 at the time, but it offended me very much. Imagine if I was coming to England and having a go at your culture without knowing anything about it? I really got angry. When I played against him the first time, at Old Trafford in 1987, I came steaming in and bounced him every ball."

Wasim gives a broad smile. He is charming and friendly, although it is true that I have not mentioned corruption yet. There is still time for him to turn nasty, especially when I bring up the Qayyam Report, which, while failing to prove any misdemeanours, declared that he was unfit to captain his country.

We will come to that. As for his charm and bonhomie, by his own admission it melts pretty rapidly in the crucible of competition. "I am very friendly with [Michael] Atherton, but I abuse him terribly when he is playing against me. I try to bounce the shit out of him, and he is ducking and diving, and I tell him he should leave his bat in the dressing-room. But he just smiles at me," Wasim chuckles. "I am very aggressive when I am bowling. I sledge and abuse people and have a go at players unnecessarily, but that is part of the game now, everybody does it."

Regrettably, the pitch invasion, too, seems to have become part of the game. But when I later call him to discuss the behaviour of Pakistan supporters at Headingley on Sunday, he comes over, for the only time in our brief acquaintance, decidedly prickly. "Of course it was bad, and something must be done, but it was not our fault. The blame should not have been on the team, but we are Pakistani, so that is what happened. Waqar's performance, the second-best bowling performance ever in the world, went completely down the drain. No pictures of him, no headlines. And why is everybody making a big issue of [captain Alec] Stewart giving us the game? We needed only three runs in 10 overs."

Still, even a tainted victory felt sweet, although, as Wasim rather depressingly implies, beating England in one-day cricket at the moment is, for the players if not the fans, no great cause for celebration. Test cricket is different, however. Which is why Pakistan's victory, in the second Test at Old Trafford, gave him such pleasure. Not only did he play superbly, and not only was it his valedictory Test in England, on the ground he graced as a county player, but it cut some English egos down to size. "At one stage I was batting with Rashid, and Caddick made some really stupid remark. I got angry. Me and Rashid were abusing him while he was bowling at us, and when he came in to bat the whole team were abusing him. After winning in Karachi and at Lord's they thought they were unbeatable. We wanted to tell them 'guys, don't act like you are better than us'. And what Caddick said really started it. This is how I motivate myself, when players say little things like that."

Like what, exactly? Was it a racist comment? "Oh no. I have never experienced racism in cricket. Never. Not even in county cricket, when playing for Lancashire in Leeds or Bradford."

Wasim's years with Lancashire, he believes, made him the cricketer he is. "The different atmosphere, living on my own, gaining the confidence to handle people, it all helped to turn me from a good talented player into a top player."

In turn, he helped Lancashire compound their reputation as masters of the one-day game. And yet he is no particular fan of one-day cricket. "In a one-day match I try to bowl just one line. If we need wickets I pitch it up more. If we want to contain I just bowl line and length. But that is not in my nature. I much prefer Test cricket, where I can show what I know about bowling. I can bowl yorkers, slower balls, bouncers, around the wicket. I can have a change of fielding every second ball, have a man back, a short leg, upset the batsman, try different things. If you want to see the calibre of a player, it has to be in Test cricket. Even an average player can look good in one-day cricket."

But a great player looks great in both manifestations of the game, and just to prove it, Wasim is the only man with more than 400 wickets in both one-day and Test cricket. This remarkable record has taken him 17 years to achieve. He made his debut for Pakistan in November 1984, aged just 18, and took 10 wickets in only his second Test, against New Zealand. Then the team moved on to Australia, and Wasim entered the most important relationship of his cricketing life. "Imran was playing for New South Wales at the time, and joined us there. Over the next two or three years he taught me that I had to work like a dog every day. I used to bat 11 for Pakistan but he made me concentrate on my batting [Wasim subsequently scored three Test centuries, including 257 not out against Zimbabwe]. And he reduced my run-up. I used to run from 25 paces, then I tried 17, but I had trouble. I tried it in a one-day game but it didn't work. I said to Imran: 'shall I go back to 25?' He said: 'no, keep trying it.'"

I wonder, has Wasim helped the next generation of Pakistani quickies as Imran helped him? Shoaib Akhtar, for instance? He half-smiles. "I wanted to learn. You can't impose yourself on someone. I think he [Shoaib] thinks he already knows everything, so..."

So more fool him. Because there is surely no one who knows more than Wasim about the art of pace bowling, having not only bowled it, but faced it as a powerful middle-order batsman, and deployed it as a captain. Apart from Imran, he rates the late Malcolm Marshall as the most complete fast bowler he ever played against. And Viv Richards as the most awesome batsman.

"There will never be another Viv Richards. He was the best I ever bowled to, surely. And he never wore a helmet. In 1988 I was bowling really fast in Barbados, and twice bowled him bouncers which he ducked, making his cap fall off. I had a go at him, and he said: 'I will see you outside'' I said: 'fine', thinking it was just the sort of thing you say on the pitch. But later he turned up outside our dressing-room, wearing just a towel, so I could see his muscles. I said [Wasim puts on a nervous squeak]: 'Imran, he is waiting for me.' In the end I went up and said: 'I am sorry, I won't do it again'."

I laugh uproariously. Wasim tells a good self-deprecating anecdote, but he is also a fiercely proud man, hugely honoured to follow in Imran's footsteps and captain his country, a job he performed in 28 Tests and more than 100 one-day matches. It was, I venture, a tricky task. A slightly bitter laugh. "I think it is the most difficult job in Pakistan. The next most difficult is being chairman of the cricket team, then maybe head of the country."

During one brief losing streak under his captaincy, Wasim's effigy was burnt in the streets. He employed someone to answer his phone because of the abusive calls. "And as a result of the tension and pressure, I became diabetic. I take three jabs a day now."

So it was a relief when he decided to resign the captaincy, but then along came Justice Malik Qayyam, questioning Wasim's honesty and deeming him unsuitable captaincy material. Suddenly, not being captain of his country represented a stain on his character. The focus of the allegations was a one-day match against New Zealand in Christchurch, in 1993-94, which Pakistan lost by seven wickets. Ata-ur-Rahman alleged that Wasim paid him to bowl badly. Wasim angrily refuted this, and Justice Qayyam concluded that "the evidence against Wasim Akram has not come up to the requisite level... the Commission is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt". Nevertheless, there was "some evidence to cast doubt on his integrity". Wasim was fined 300,000 rupees (£4,500), which he is now appealing against.

Like England's Alec Stewart, he protests his innocence persuasively. "Nobody ever had the balls to talk to me [about throwing a match]. And look at the sums they are talking about ­ $2,000 and $5,000. I earned good money with Lancashire. I have been with Pepsi for the last 12 years, I am happy with life.

"If you are talking about huge money then OK, fair enough, someone might do it. But I get that money for playing a benefit match somewhere. Why would I want to do this?"

Why indeed?

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