Wasim tames the wild man

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW Pakistan face England in the first Test on Thursday with a captain determined to lead by example. Ian Stafford reports
Just for a moment you think you have come to the wrong place. A group of Pakistani Test cricketers are assembled in a happy throng, laughing and nudging each other after another good day's work on the field. There seems to be no internal squabbling, no prima donnas and no accusations of tampering with anything are in evidence.

Far from it. Despite all the acrimony of the past two series between England and Pakistan, these guys are having a ball. If they are not steamrollering everyone who dares to oppose them on the cricket field, then they are enjoying day trips to Alton Towers.

At the centre of it all is Wasim Akram, the captain of Pakistan and a man who holds a job as secure as a football manager in charge of a relegated team. The stud in the left ear reminds you of how he was, but the short, almost disciplined haircut also tells you that the wild, aggressive figure of the past has suddenly found reasons to be mature.

"Well, I'm married. I've just turned 30, and I'm the captain again," is his cheery explanation. "I've mellowed, like everyone does, but I've also taken a good, long look at myself, and realised that some work was needed to be done."

For many years his wild aggression was encouraged. Discovered as a raw but big and powerful 17-year-old from Lahore, he made his Test debut a year later and, in only his second Test, took 10 New Zealand wickets.

From then on Wasim, later in partnership with Waqar Younis, formed the deadliest strike force in world cricket, skittling hapless batsmen with either his unbearable quick left-armers or his more subtle seamers. He begins the Test series against England having taken 289 wickets, which, at aged 30 and after 67 Tests, is an incredible haul.

His expressiveness was both an asset and a hindrance. He produced a series of match-winning performances when Lancashire signed him on an unprecedented six-year contract in 1988, but was then fined pounds 1,000 by the county after a particularly bad tantrum three years later. Wasim had his moods, too, made worse by niggling groin injuries caused by his bowling, and was seen, in some cricketing quarters, as a temperamental star.

Even his first stint as his country's captain ended miserably, after just six Tests, in 1994, and since then a sorry procession of colleagues have all tried to steer Pakistan back to where, by rights, they should be in the international world of cricket. In desperation, the board turned back to Wasim for last winter's tour of Australia and New Zealand, and for the World Cup.

In return, a seemingly new Wasim has been born. "I was much more aggressive than I am now," he admits. "Looking back, I now accept that I had a hot temper, and there were times when I let it get the better of me. If you have a hot temper, you can't think, and I've made a lot of mistakes on the pitch as a result.

"But now I am the captain again, and this has made me far more responsible. We are a team of both experience and youth. I must remember two very important aspects. I must try harder and lead by example, and I must make sure that we are not a group of talented individuals but a team, all working together.

"In the recent past we had some very good players, but I don't think any of them worked as hard as they should have done. The current team understands why we must both work hard and work together. We will play good and positive cricket, which is why we have been playing hard in every game leading up to the Test series. This will help to ensure us success."

Success is what the Pakistani public back home not only want but expect. Just like in India, the pressure of demand is immense, so just imagine what the reaction was like when Wasim led his country to defeat against India in the World Cup quarter-final.

"It would have been bad enough if we'd lost to anyone else, but to lose to India! If we'd beaten them we would all have been treated like heroes, but as it was..." He stops talking for a few seconds while he reminds himself of the enormity of the event. "I went on Pakistani TV after the game and tried to explain that in cricket one team wins and the other loses, but we still got hammered by the press and public. You see, forget about hockey or squash; in Pakistan, cricket means everything to the people. There's not much entertainment back home so they follow cricket. They expect us to beat everyone, every time."

Even Wasim's expectations, however, are more than hopeful against an England side who he respects but, having watched the Test series against India, hardly fears. "England are never easy to beat on their home soil, and we will not be taking them lightly," he begins. (You know a "but" will shortly follow.) "But they will need to raise their game to beat us. India had good batsmen but no variety in their bowling, and nothing to fall back. We, on the other hand, have world-class bowlers in all departments."

Worryingly, from an England point of view, Wasim reckons that both he and the recently injured Waqar Younis are back to full steam. Even more disconcerting is his view that Pakistan now possess a further two bowlers quicker than him. "I tell you, Mohammad Akram (no relation) and Shahid Sohail are as fast, if not faster, than either myself or Waqar." He makes it sound like the feared fast bowling attack from the West Indies. He laughs. "It's true," he says. "And don't forget we have Mushtaq as well, the best leg-spinner in the world."

Then, of course, there is a certain Wasim Akram, lethal bowler, but possibly, I venture, an under-achiever in the batting department? "Dead right," he replies emphatically. "I think people see me as a bowler who can bat, but I really should be a top-class all-rounder, shouldn't I? I should have scored a lot more than I have.

"I think being captain will help me here. I am working a lot harder on my batting, and I do not intend to keep getting out trying to hit sixes all the time. You will see a different Wasim batting in this series, I promise you."

It is not really a promise any England follower wants to hear. No wonder he laments the fact that the series, starting at Lord's on Thursday, is only over three Tests. "It's down to the two boards of course, but we're all disappointed to be only playing three Tests when, by rights, it should be five.

"We are a major cricketing nation and we really should be contesting a major Test series here. The problem with three-Test series is that it is very difficult to win if you lose the first Test. I think it's been twice only. This is why it is so important we win the first Test."

From a personal point of view, Wasim will be looking to pass the 300- mark in Test wickets this summer. He admits he is hell-bent on breaking the world record. "I figure I have four or five years left in the game, and the target is 430 wickets," he says, referring to Kapil Dev's mark. "So I've got 140 to get." He pauses, working it out in his own mind. "Yep, I think it can be done."

On a far wider scale, however, is Wasim's overriding intention for Pakistan to make their mark this summer, and for all the right reasons. "It's crucial for the future of Pakistani cricket that we perform well this summer. If we do, then this team will stay together for many years, and the combination of harmony and success will make us the best in the world.

"But we are all very conscious of how important it is to have a friendly tour in England. None of us want any of the past to rear up again. We will play hard and make sure that we remain friendly with the opposition at all times, both on and off the pitch. We see the past as being the past, and what we are concerned about is the present and the future."

Wasim Akram has already started his work in this department, spending a Saturday with his Lancashire team-mates at Lord's, especially one Michael Atherton, and cheering them on to Benson and Hedges Cup success. "It'll be fine," he insists, as a parting statement. "It's going to be a good summer."