Wasim Akram was the master swing bowler of the modern era. With Waqar Younis he formed one of the most lethal fast-bowling partnerships in the history of the game. When Wasim and Waqar were in their pomp during the mid-1990s they were a formidable force, decimating batting line-ups, and making Pakistan one of the world's best teams.
Wasim provided a finesse in his bowling that was rare in fast bowlers. Waqar, the perfect foil, pounded in to bowl fast and furiously. He also had great skill, but Wasim was the magician when it came to deception.
I only played against Wasim on a handful of occasions at the tail-end of his career. The first time was in the Champions Trophy in Kenya. He bowled just one delivery at me - a fast, skiddy bouncer that I ducked under. The next time was in Sharjah, where he uprooted my stumps with a vicious, swinging yorker with the new ball. The only time I prospered was in an innings in Morocco, back in 2002. During those brief encounters I discovered first-hand just why the world's great batsmen, the Tendulkars, Laras, de Silvas and Jayasuriyas, spoke of Wasim with such awe and respect.
Wasim was probably the most skilful and deceptive fast bowler that I have watched. Nothing was ever the same twice in a row. He tested every single part of your game as a batsman, probing away for chinks in your technique.
He would seem to be rushing towards you at the end of his run-up. He had great balance and a quick arm action, coupled with very strong shoulders, and had the ability to bowl deliveries that could be anywhere between 120 and 145kph with no discernible change in his action. This rapid change in pace from one delivery to the next was lethal.
Long before I seriously thought about a future career in cricket, I remember watching two of the most unforgettable deliveries ever, in the final of the 1992 World Cup. England were chasing 249 for victory and going well on 141 for 4 when Wasim came back for a mid-innings spell.
The first ball was the one round the wicket to Allan Lamb, England's match-winner during that period. The ball seemed to swing into the batsman, only to nip away at the last minute and take his off stump. It was a wicked, unplayable delivery. The next was perhaps even better, swinging about two feet to bowl Chris Lewis first ball. Lewis looked dumbfounded.
These deliveries were produced in the middle of the innings with the old ball. It was this unmatched ability to reverse-swing the ball that was Wasim's hallmark. It was an ability that was dogged by controversy, with many accusations around the world that reverse swing was the product of ball-tampering. I think these controversies took the focus away from what was a supreme skill.
Fast bowlers need to be able to bowl on any wickets with a ball that's in any condition. That is the true test of a bowler's skill. Wasim was able to do that. Flat pitches, slow pitches, quick pitches - he was an ever-present threat on them all. Some quick bowlers thrive only when the pitch has zest and lift; not Wasim.
I remember being on tour in Bangladesh when Wasim was a TV commentator. We invited him to share the secrets of reverse swing with our team. He was happy to do so. Indeed, he was always obliging and quick to share his vast knowledge and experience with us and other fellow cricketers.
He told us how the fielders and the bowlers needed to take the utmost care to prevent any moisture touching one side of the ball, so it could become rough, while keeping the other shined and smooth. He then explained in detail the complexities of wrist position, arm speed, and angles. It was fascinating.
Wasim's cricket career was not always smooth. When he was captain, there seemed to be regular rumours of dissatisfaction within the team. Pakistan has historically been a team that has always suffered from partisanship and power struggles, and captains of Pakistan have always needed to be very strong mentally to be able to withstand the pressures of leading a hugely talented but sometimes temperamental side. Talks of petitions being signed against the captain, of the captaincy changing hands, were a constant reality for Wasim when he was in charge.
Yet, for all this pressure and the nasty off-field politicking, it's a testament to his strength of character and his zest for the game that he still became a true legend of the sport; a man who could make the cricket ball talk; a man who was a lethal bowler at every stage of his career, and who would still be so if he decided to pick up a ball today. He played the game hard and with skill, lived life fully, and let his skill rise above petty controversies and squabbles.
If I were given the opportunity to challenge my skill as a batsman by picking bowlers from history whom to face, Wasim would be an automatic choice. Perhaps the greatest tribute you can pay him is that in the current era of fast bowlers there is no one who can be judged to be in the same class. He was a once-in-a-generation cricketer who lifted fast bowling to new levels, and helped carry Pakistan to the top of world cricket. A true legend.
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