Swing and a prayer

Simon O'Hagan meets Waqar Younis, who once again has England mesmerised
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The Independent Online
The slower the better, they say of a golfer's swing, and for a novice, Waqar Younis's is admirably slow. Here he was, teeing up at the Mount Oswald Golf Club, just outside Durham on Friday evening, nicely balanced, shoulders relaxed, pausing at that crucial moment at the top of the back-lift before bringing the club-head down and smacking the ball towards a distant vista of sunlit trees and rolling countryside. Not much wrong with any of that.

As the other members of the group, the Pakistani tour manager, Yawar Saeed, and the captain, Wasim Akram, stood to one side, clubs in hand, it was tempting to see in Waqar's compact but supple movements the same mixture of control and aggression that marks him out as arguably the best fast bowler in the world.

On the golf course, however, the emphasis is perhaps more on the former, and certainly the Waqar who comes and sits down in the shadow of the clubhouse after 18 holes has an air of repose that must get lost somewhere on that 25-yard run-up as he accelerates towards the bowling crease and unleashes another of his swinging, dipping, 90mph missiles in the direction of the batsman's toe-caps.

"I've only played golf for a year or so," he explained. "The first time was in Sri Lanka. A few of us tried it. It's kind of addictive, isn't it?"

For Waqar and his team-mates, last week was a chance to get away for a few days' peace after the tumult of their extraordinary victory over England in the first Test at Lord's - the match that saw Waqar back in his pomp, joining forces with the leg-spinner Mushtaq Ahmed to destroy England's batting on the final afternoon and earn himself the man-of-the- match award just when it looked as if Pakistan would have to settle for a draw.

On Tuesday morning the team travelled to Edinburgh. They got the chance to play some golf, and there were the gentle pleasures of the equivalent of an up-country game, a one-day bash against Scotland, which Waqar missed because of a hamstring injury, though he would surely have been rested anyway after his exertions at Lord's. Then it was down to Durham for the tour match that began at Chester-le-Street yesterday.

In English eyes, the 24-year-old Waqar has become an unstoppable force, a figure of brooding menace apparently capable of summoning wickets - Graeme Hick's anyway - at will. In fact, the Waqar who went into the First Test was feeling much less certain of himself than anyone realised.

"I hadn't really played much Test cricket for a year and a half," he said. "I'd had my back injury and there had been a lot of one-day matches. I'd played Tests against Australia in the winter, but I wasn't fully fit. I wasn't bowling to my capacity."

Waqar has seen doctors in Britain, Australia and the United States about his four-year-old back problem, but none of them can agree on its exact nature. It last flared up in South Africa two winters ago, and at one point Waqar feared his career might be over. But with exercise and injections it had improved by the time Waqar arrived at Lord's.

It was the sight of the wicket that really gave his spirits a lift. "I thought, 'That's my kind of wicket.' It was a typical Pakistani wicket. The ball kept low, it was dry-muddy, the ball got scruffy quickly. I knew I would get wickets."

None the less, by the time Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart had steered England to 168 for one in the second innings, didn't the Pakistanis think their chance had gone? "For four hours Alec and Mike played brilliant cricket," Waqar said. "But we still had belief in ourselves. The way Mushy was bowling we knew it could happen. We had this feeling that if we could take one or two quick wickets we could take more. But I never thought it would happen in two hours."

While Mushtaq made the vital breakthrough, Waqar's blood-scenting performance at the other end shattered what was left of English resistance in what he described as "one of the best Test matches I've ever played in". He was unforthcoming about the Hick dismissal - Waqar is not one to gloat. "I'd got him out seven or eight times in county cricket," he said, as if suggesting: "Well, you'd been warned".

So how does he do it? The reverse swing, the yorkers, the sheer speed. "My action and the way I run in. It's a question of rhythm. I can feel from the first ball of the day whether I am going to bowl well or not. It just comes. I don't really know how I do it. I'm grateful to my God for giving me a gift to do the sort of things which even I can't believe sometimes." He says he refuses to be bothered by ball-tampering allegations.

Waqar has been striking fear into batsmen ever since he got hooked on cricket as a nine-year-old boy in Sharjah, where his father worked in the construction industry for a while. "I always wanted to be a fast bowler," Waqar said. "I had a talent for it. I didn't really work as hard as I should have done."

With 208 Test wickets so far and who knows how many more if he can stay fit, Waqar owes his achievement less to application than unquenchable desire. It's a quality he values in others.

"That's the difference between this team and the one that was here in 1992," he said. "This is younger and they all want to win. Last time we had a couple of guys who were just hanging around." Whether you are a batsman, or a golf ball, that's something you just do not do with Waqar Younis.

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