Sultan of Swing: Wasim, Melbourne and pure magic

It is difficult to overstate the significance – and the brilliance – of the two consecutive balls Wasim Akram bowled in the middle of the Melbourne Cricket Ground on the evening of March 25, 1992.

A perfect outswinger. A vicious inswinger. Each on a dime. One beat settled. Another new. Neither adequately prepared. Both castled.

In his soon-to-be released memoir, Sultan, written with Gideon Haigh, Wasim provides us with the up-close view of those storied few minutes, which effectively decided the outcome of the 1992 World Cup final between Pakistan and England.

Of the exchange ahead of the first wicket between the Englishmen, Allan Lamb and Neil Fairbrother, which the bowler only later learned about via Fairbrother, his long-time teammate at Lancashire.

“‘Harvey’ (Fairbrother) later told me what he’d told his partner,” Wasim writes. “‘Just cover your stumps and see him out. He will bowl outswing to you from wide of the crease’. I can imagine Lamb being skeptical a bowler could do that.”

Of the reaction of his teammates.

“Nobody could quite believe it, not even me. Moin (Khan) slapped my hands with his gloves. How about that? Javed (Miandad) said that only Bradman could have played it.”

Of the plan for the next ball to Chris Lewis, the new man in.

“‘I think I should bowl the yorker’, I said to Imran (Khan) as I walked back. ‘No’, my captain replied. ‘He’ll be expecting the yorker. Bowl length to him, inswing’.”

Wasim celebrates knocking over Chris Lewis in the '92 World Cup final // Getty
Wasim celebrates knocking over Chris Lewis in the ’92 World Cup final // Getty

The advice proffered tells you all you need to know. Few fast bowlers in history have been able to switch so dramatically and precisely, and at such pace, from outswing to inswing in the space of two balls.

Only one has done so in the hot glare of a World Cup final, with the match in the balance and a billion or more people monitoring his every move.

For Pakistanis, it was a double strike that precipitated perhaps the greatest moment in their country’s history.

And for Wasim, it naturally follows, nothing would ever be the same again.

* * *

As 200 million Pakistanis steel themselves for a World Cup final on Sunday night, it is hard to miss the parallels to that ’92 decider, when Imran’s team defied the odds to sneak into the semi-finals, where they then defeated New Zealand to take their place against England at the MCG, that cricketing coliseum that carries with it so many seismic moments in the game’s history.

For Wasim, the venue – and the city itself – shapes as something of a recurring theme throughout his life. His first appearance there was in February 1985 when, despite being ‘dazzled’ by “cricket with a white ball and players in colored clothing under floodlights”, and having only recently learned from his mentor Imran what exactly a ‘yorker’ was, he proceeded to knock over Australia’s top five, clean bowling Robbie Kerr and Kepler Wessels as Dean Jones chopped on. He was raw, skinny, and just 18 years old.

Teenage Wasim rips through the Aussies

Five years later he returned to play his first Test series in Australia. He was stronger, fitter, more worldly. He was also by then the ICC’s sixth-ranked Test bowler.

He took 11 wickets. Marsh, Boon, Border, Jones, S Waugh among them.

In the years between, he had learned at the heel of Imran, one of cricket’s great all-rounders and a man whose knowledge of reverse swing went on to shape the careers of Wasim as well as Waqar Younis, who arrived on the international scene in 1989.

In Sultan, Imran says of Wasim: “I never saw a cricketer with such talent. Everything about him was completely natural … He arrived on the scene with an action he hardly had to alter … What I taught him was the art of taking wickets and the importance of self-discipline – how he had to work if he was to fulfill his enormous potential.”

Wasim insists there was more to it than that.

“I was his project,” he writes, before describing himself through that formative period as a “boy on a man’s mission”.

“Imran changed all that,” he continues. “He got me to accentuate my pivot as I hit the crease, so that my shoulder really snapped. He got me locking my wrist and securing the ball with my third and fourth fingers, so that the seam came out stable. He refined my run -up; he worked on my variations; he taught me to bowl at the death in one-day internationals.

“(With regards to reverse swing) polishing was still important, Imran explained, but the key was keeping the unpolished side as dry and rough as possible.

“Imran told me how to prepare a ball, how to cant my wrist, how to disguise my hand, and how optimally to deliver it – fast and full.”

From the Vault: Wasim rattles Taylor, takes six at the MCG

The detail is rich and fascinating throughout, from the art of making the ball talk to the conspiracy theories surrounding its use, which Wasim concedes he took personally, and which he feels were delivered from some quarters with ignorance and an undercurrent of racism.

“Had Australia or England prospered from a new skill, the cricket world would have stood and applauded,” he writes. “We were seen as sneaky, tricky, deceptive.

“(The English) showed no curiosity about the skill involved. They didn’t observe, for instance, how we only ever had one man polish the ball, how we took care to hold the ball in our fingers but never in our palm.

“They did not grasp how quickly the side of a ball could deteriorate if you neglected it, bowled the odd cross-seam ball, bounced it back to the keeper.

“They simply derided us as ‘cheating Pakis’… the hostile press coverage was a huge motivation. Call me a cheat? I’ll bowl faster and more fiercely than ever.”

And so he did. No one was spared. Wasim took hat-tricks for fun. He knocked over legends with ludicrous late-swinging yorkers. He bounced Viv Richards with what the Master Blaster recalls as the quickest delivery he ever faced. For a generation he was among the most feared fast bowlers in the game, and probably its most skilful. The numbers bear it out: from the beginning of 1985 until the end of the century, Wasim took 779 international wickets at 23.17, more than a hundred clear of his nearest rival.

And for much of it, his performances came in spite of a national side riddled with insubordination and distrust, and riven by ambition and greed.

* * *

Hand in hand with the Pakistan national team’s successes and highs over much of the past 30 years has been an unparalleled ability to self-destruct. Wasim’s perspective offers an intense spotlight on some of the reasons for this.

Through numerous chapters, he wades into the murky waters of match-fixing and corruption. He explains the divisions it caused, and the second-guessing it created, all while vehemently maintaining his innocence of him, as well as his frustration at the stain he believes it has nonetheless left on his legacy of him.

He recalls overhearing teammates after the 1996 World Cup quarter-final defeat to India, conspiring to say his withdrawal with injury from the match was a product of collusion with match fixers. He remembers, too, the shocking fallout.

“I was being execrated by politicians,” he writes. “I was being burned in effigy. Posters of me were being defaced. My mother received threatening telephone calls. My home in Model Town was pelted with stones.

“Pamphlets were published alleging that I had been paid millions not to play, that I had been dancing in Bangalore’s Oasis nightclub the night before the game.”

From the Vault: Wasim bamboozles Australia again

He talks of the Pakistan captaincy coming and going from his grasp like sand through his fingertips, and the loyalties of many teammates doing likewise. At one particularly chastening moment in his career, where he felt he had been given no option but to step down as skipper, he resolved to continue playing for his country, if not the national team itself.

“Teammates with whom I had played for many years,” he writes, “whom I’d regarded as friends, whom I’d welcomed into my home, had in the very next breath refused to play under my captaincy – and the PCB ( Pakistan Cricket Board) had allowed it to happen.How was I now to play alongside them?

“The only way, (his late first wife) Huma counseled me, was to regard them not as friends, still less as allies, but simply as ‘colleagues’.

“And so, for the years 1994 to 1996, I was in the Pakistani team but not of it. I bowled. I batted. I contributed my skills. I gave as little as possible of myself. I went to team meetings and barely spoke off the field I avoided my teammates as much as I could.

“Least of all would I bow down before whomever was in charge, who was constantly changing anyway.”

Wasim’s numbers across those three years? In 81 internationals he took 198 wickets at 21.40, striking every 42.8 balls. Only Shane Warne claimed more.

The contrast to this – to the chaos of the Pakistani team he details, to the scathing character assessments he unleashes on some of his former teammates – is his happiness in Lancashire, where he spent a decade as one of the County Championships great overseas players.

It was on the county circuit that he refined his craft, learned new tricks from the likes of little-known West Indies paceman Franklyn Stephenson, and reveled in the solidarity of his teammates and a simple enjoyment of the game, all while taking more than 600 wickets.

It was a far cry, he explains, from the isolation and hopelessness he often felt within the national set-up, where political agendas could determine a man’s fate and a trustworthy teammate was difficult to find – a feeling most jarringly related in this description of his various vice-captains during his many reigns as skipper: “They are seldom supportive, often ambitious, and sometimes mischievous. In all my terms of captaincy, virtually every deputy I had concealed a dagger.”

* * *

There is a private pretext to that 1992 World Cup final that Wasim very candidly shares. It details a conversation with his then wife, Huma – who tragically passed in 2009 from mucormycosis, a rare fungal infection – in which she uses some learned psychology techniques to calm his nerves, and have him visualize his success.

As the match approached, he remembers: “I felt fresh. I felt relaxed. I felt like I could fly”.

The rest, so it goes, is history. Wasim hit 33 off 18 balls and then took 3-49, including those famous strikes of Lamb and Lewis, to be named player of the match.

It capped off his special relationship with the MCG where, almost 20 years after his retirement, he remains the only player to have taken a Test 10-fer and an ODI five-fer.

Years later, the Melbourne theme would be revisited; it is the city from which his second wife, Shaniera, hails, and consequently, where he has spent much time in the past decade.

On Sunday night, Wasim’s attention will doubtless again be drawn to its spiritual centrepiece, as eleven of his countrymen look to follow in his footsteps, and claim their own moment of cricketing immortality.

Pre-order Sultan: Wasim Akram here. Available Nov 16

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