Leading edge of new unity: Wasim Akram

Pakistan teams have long been marked by strife and discord. Simon O'Hagan meets a man set to end the arguments
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A Few football managers might disagree, but jobs in sport do not come much more precarious than being captain of the Pakistan cricket team. They are in and out like batsmen in a middle-order collapse. That ought to make any incumbent nervous, but Wasim Akram seems curiously unperturbed by the danger.

"There is no point worrying," Wasim said last week during the Pakistanis' visit to Stone, in Staffordshire, where they were playing Minor Counties in a one-day match. "If you are worrying, you are bound to feel down. And if the captain is down the whole team is down. That's a very important part of being captain. You have to keep everyone happy all the time."

Pakistani teams of the past have not come across as the cheeriest bunch of people ever to set foot on a cricket field, but under Wasim this one is clearly intent on approaching the game differently - not just in an attempt to shed their image as creators of as much strife within their own ranks as in the opposition's, but because Wasim believes passionately that unity of purpose is the first step on the road to success.

"Our attitude is changing," he said. "We're trying to be a bit more relaxed. I think we're a better team as a result. As sportsmen we have short careers. We shouldn't spend time fighting. We want to play positively and aggressively, but make friends as well."

Wasim's approach marks, he hopes, the end of a more than usually turbulent period in Pakistan cricket history in which, if one includes one-day internationals as well as Tests, the captaincy has changed hands no fewer than eight times in four years. But Wasim and his vice-captain, Aamir Sohail, talk like people who have had enough of the scandal and sedition.

The post-Imran era was always likely to be difficult for Pakistan. Through the second half of the 1980s and early 1990s Imran was the only player who stood a chance of holding a volatile team together, and not even he managed it all the time. Once he retired, having led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 World Cup, any sense of continuity disappeared.

Although under Javed Miandad the brilliance of Wasim and Waqar Younis helped Pakistan beat England 2-1 in 1992, rows with umpires and allegations of ball-tampering created bad feeling all round, which must run the risk of resurfacing this week when Ian Botham takes Imran to court in a libel action arising from incidents in that most contentious of series.

The following winter Wasim was made captain for what turned out to be an unsuccessful tour of West Indies. He lasted six Tests in all. Since then Waqar Younis, Salim Malik, Moin Khan, Saeed Anwar, Ramiz Raja, and Sohail have all had the job, either officially or standing in. Controversy has remained almost ever-present, while Pakistan's form has continued to fluctuate.

The lowest point came in the winter of 1994-95, after Salim had led Pakistan to a 1-0 victory over Australia. His opponents subsequently accused him of attempted bribery, while his side went on to lose in South Africa and only manage a 2-1 win in Zimbabwe. Last winter, after Pakistan lost at home to Sri Lanka under the captaincy of Ramiz, the Board turned once more to Wasim for the tours of Australia and New Zealand and the World Cup.

"That was the turning point," Sohail said. "We realised that we had to learn how to play like a team. Wasim and I talked to every player and told them that if we wanted to be successful this was what their role had to be. There could be no survival if we played like individuals."

For Wasim, it was a case of restoring lines of communication which had by then broken down. "I made it clear to people that if they've any problems they should come straight to me." Pakistan started making progress again. Having lost the first two Tests to Australia, they came back to win the third. They won in New Zealand, and Wasim felt there was no disgrace when they went out of the World Cup, beaten by India in a quarter-final which he missed with a rib injury.

"Players listen to Wasim, because he always delivers," Sohail said. "He's a fighter, and the players look up to him." That view was echoed by the England coach, David Lloyd. As the former coach of Lancashire, where Wasim has played his county cricket since 1988, Lloyd knows Wasim as well as anyone in English cricket does.

"We made him captain last season when Mike Watkinson was away playing for England, and he did very well," Lloyd said. "In a similar way to Mike Atherton he led by example. The lads thought the world of him."

A lot of that has to do with the fact that the warm and engaging Wasim is very much one of the lads himself, and does not deny it. He agrees with Imran's assessment that he is not a natural leader. "Imran was very aloof," Wasim said. "I'm much more easy-going. But then I'm not sure anyone is a natural leader. It is something you have to learn by experience and you must admit your mistakes. I think I was too young when I first did the job. I've learnt a lot since then."

Wasim has just turned 30 - a prime age to be captain, even if his game is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. It is now more than 11 years since he made his remarkable debut in first-class cricket, turning out for a Patron's XI and taking seven for 50 against the New Zealanders at Rawalpindi. Within two months he was playing international cricket, and in his second Test took 10 New Zealand wickets for 128 at Dunedin.

In 65 Tests, in which he has taken 289 wickets at 22.57, Wasim has established himself as one of the greatest exponents of left-arm fast bowling in the history of the game. "He's very, very dangerous," Lloyd said. "He can switch off and switch on. He can put in quick spells and then drop his pace and find movement."

Wasim's batting is a slightly different story. He had the talent to become an all-rounder to match the very best, but explosive one-day knocks are more his style than run-making in Tests, where his average is a modest 19.15. "I should get more runs, but bowling a lot doesn't help. I need more patience."

Higher on Wasim's list of priorities is beating England in the three- Test series that starts at Lord's on Thursday week. The bad news for England is that Wasim thinks that his team is as good as that which was here four years ago. The good news for cricket is that Wasim is a man determined to ensure that the spirit in which the series is played is rather better.