Sportstar Archives: Wasim Akram on Chennai Test, Kumble's 10-for and India-Pakistan rivalry

In this 1999 interview, former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram opens up on the 1999 tour to India, the Chennai and Delhi Tests, and more.

Former Pakistan skipper Wasim Akram has 917 international wickets.   -  V.V.Krishnan

It was Imran Khan who made a man out of a boy responding to the name of Wasim Akram. After being around for 15 years in international cricket, Akram, like his mentor, has earned the respect of batsmen the world over. Experts hail him as the one of the finest exponents of the art of pace bowling in contemporary cricket, but Akram is aiming to attain greatness. The Pakistan skipper, the highest wicket-taker in one-day internationals with 363 dismissals, has now trained his eves on breaking Kapil Dcv's record of 434 Test wickets.

Following a turbulent recent past, which saw the left-arm seamer announce his retirement from the game, Akram took over the reins of Pakistan after the dismal home series against Australia and Zimbabwe. One of the survivors of the 1987 team which won the series in India under Imran Khan, Akram may not have succeeded in emulating that feat, but did enough to ensure that Pakistan returned with honours even.

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On the tour, Akram did surpass Imran on one count. During the Delhi Test, Akram took his tally to 363, one better than Imran's, to become the highest wicket-taker in Tests for Pakistan. At the end of the two-Test series, Akram took time off and spoke to Sportstar in New Delhi. In this long and candid interview, a relaxed Akram spoke of the importance of the tour, shared his views on Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Saqlain Mushtaq, the influence of one-dayers on Test cricket, the art of captaincy, diplomacy through cricket, what India should do to perform better overseas and much more.

Excerpts:

Question: What was your foremost objective before embarking on a tour of this kind?

Answer: Well, the first project was to win and have a successful series. When I say successful, it means both cricketwise as well as the efforts towards improving relations between the two sides. I remember, when I last came here in 1987, I thought the friendship between the two teams was good, but I thought it could be made better. In the present Indian team, I have lots old good friends.
Azhar is a good friend and so is Sachin. All the boys respect me, come to me for advice and listen to whatever I say. I also treat them like younger brothers, very much the same way I look at my team members. So this tour was important for me and I enjoyed playing in India. I have always had a great time playing against England and it was quite like that. We both played with intensity, had a go at each other on the field but once off it, I think, it was wonderful.

Did you accomplish what you had set out for?

I think so. I've been getting a great response from the people. They show respect and appreciation for what I have done or said on this tour. The way we were looked after, it was simply amazing. Besides being happy, 1 was also left pleasantly surprised at the kind of hype the team enjoyed in India.

What about the apprehensions before the tour?

Believe me, we were not at all scared by the threats. We all were certain that when the Indian
Government is inviting us, there was nothing to fear about. We, too, were keeping a watch on the developments through television news and knew that the people of India were keen to have us here. So, we were keen to come here. And touch wood, nothing untoward happened.

What I learnt from Imran was that hard-work surely pays," says Akram. Photo: N. Sridharan

 

After reaching here, did the unprecedented security make things difficult for you?

Not at all. Security is there but it is all quite relaxed. If anyone wants to meet us, he should get his name registered and then approach us. If we want to go out, the security-men were there to accompany us. Despite all the security, all of us were most comfortable at all times.

As compared to your 1987 visit, in what way was the reception of the team different this time?

I was very young when I came here last to play Test cricket. Now I can say that this time it is much different. We are almost being treated like rock stars. There is security everywhere. People can't reach us easily. We are enjoying this kind of attention. The boys are relaxed and they are enjoying all this. I also guess, they deserve it. I am sure when the Indian cricketers visit us, they'll also get a similar reception. We all have been looked after very well by the people here and the whole world has watched it. It will be reciprocated by the people of Pakistan when the Indians come there.

Considering the circumstances and the form of your team before coming here, did you ever expect to go back with honours even?

You see, I've always maintained that India does well at home and we do better overseas. We did lose two series at home and the confidence of the team was low before we came here. So I think, we did very well to level the series. In Delhi, the toss was crucial and I hate playing cricket where toss is crucial. The pitch should have something for both teams and should test the skills needed to play test cricket.

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When you have players like Sachin and Inzamam playing, it's fun to watch the ball coming on to the bat. It should also have something for the spinners. What's the point of playing on a dead surface where only the spinners are calling the shots, the ball keeps low and shot-making is difficult. India keeps complaining that it doesn't have fast bowlers. How can it have fast bowlers by playing on such pitches, for instance, we made wickets against Zimbabwe (in the recent home series) and lost the first Test on a green pitch. We are not scared of playing on green wickets.

Both Tests ended in four days for different reasons. Do you think, that was only due to some superb bowling by the spinners on friendly pitches or the batsmen's lack of application to play long Test innings on such surfaces?

I think, nowadays, you don't have the batsmen in the mould of a Sunil Gayaskar or a Michael Atherton. One-day cricket has changed the game so much and you can't even blame today's cricketers. They all play so much limited-over cricket nowadays that despite trying hard to the play a long innings in tests, sooner or later, they end up playing a rash stroke. That is why we are seeing more and more results in Test matches even on flat wickets.

Do you think the number of Tests played should go up a little or the frequency of one-dayers be brought down?

We should play more Test cricket but then we must continue to have one-davers because there are more returns in it for the sponsor and the crowd loves it. Yet, Test cricket is THE cricket. You can truly judge a player in Test cricket. The one who scores more runs or takes wickets in Test cricket, he is indeed a talented player. In one-davers, you can even send a number 10 player to open and even he can score a 50 or two in 10-12 matches, specially on flat surfaces. Running the ball to third man or sav, playing in the air, are more due to one-dayers. Even when I am playing, after blocking 10 deliveries, I feel like stepping out and playing a big shot.

Talking of adaptability, was Shahid Afridi's 'discovery' as a Test opener by chance after Wajahatullah Wasti failed to score in the tour opener at Gwalior?

Actually, even if Wajahatullah had got runs at Gwalior, I had decided on Afridi for Chennai because I wanted a fifth bowler in the side. I wanted to be more positive, I spoke to him and told him that he had the talent and it was entirely up to him if he wanted to be a Test cricketer. I offered him a chance and he took it.

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I am glad that the confidence he gained from Chennai was for everyone to see in Delhi. He played well in the first innings, but got out to a bad shot. In the second, he was not out but the umpire heard a nick and gave him out. But what is important is that Afridi showed promise. He is also a fine fielder and I think, he is a good prospect for Pakistan in Test cricket.

And do you think the tag of 'one-day bowler' is off Saqlain Mushtaq for good now?

For the last two to three vears, I have maintained that Saqlain is the best off-spinner we have. I have
always played him and got wickets from him. I made him play against the West Indies and he got 10 wickets. You have to give him confidence to get results out of him.

As a captain, Akram thinks Pakistan is lucky to have a bowler like Saqlain.

 

What makes Saqlain different?

He is a unique bowler. I don't think in our cricket history, we either had a bowler like him or will ever have one. The delivery that goes away from the right-hander is simply too good. His temperament is great. Even when he gets punished, he comes back with vengeance. For a spinner, it is crucial not to get scared of getting hammered. Spinners do get punished, even Saqlain gets whipped but it is his temperament that makes him different. His variety brings back his confidence. As a captain, I think the side is lucky to have a bowler like Saqlain.

What went wrong in Delhi despite having the bowling resources to take on any team on any surface?

I think, the moment we lost the toss, we were mentally a little low. Although we got India bowled out for 252, we knew the wicket was a difficult one to got runs. If we had got 250 or even 225, we could have fought. Perhaps, the team played a little negative, not because of any other reason, but I guess it was natural. In the second innings, we had India at 199 for six, then a couple of decisions went against us, Sourav (Ganguly) was out on my ball, Srinath, too, was out, and a couple of catches went abegging. I am not giving you excuses but only the facts. But then, the Indians played better cricket than us. The credit should go to them.

Considering the state of the pitch, how huge was the 80-run lead?

It was a very huge lead on such a wicket. In fact, that itself was enough and even if we had to chase 300 (for victory), it would have been impossible.

But did you really fancy your chances when India was 199 for six?

I thought, we had a fair chance at that stage. But Sourav played very well. He is a good player of spin and has a solid defence. Srinath, too, played well and this partnership was very crucial. It was this partnership that took the match away from us.

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When Pakistan chased, how do you explain the collapse after being 101 without loss?

I guess, when you are chasing 420, it doesn't make much of a difference even if you are 250 without loss. The loss of one or two wickets does enough to bring the batting side under pressure all over again. The fielders close in and things become very difficult. A bowler like Anil Kumble, on this wicket, was unplayable. The one that got Mushtaq Ahmed was close to a bouncer. The ball was also keeping low from a couple of spots, where the top had come off. I must say that one thing the Shiv Sainiks did right was that they dug up the right pitch (laughs).

In fact, the end where Kumble was bowling to was dug up more.

That was the end, where the top came off earlier.

And the bootmarks left by you while bowling were also believed to have aided Saqlain a great deal.

Must have but I don't normally come on to the pitch because usually, my landing foot is quite in front.

A look-back at the Chennai Test. As a captain what was going on in your mind when Tendulkar and Mongia were threatening to take away the match?

I was very much worried but I didn't show it. I was backing my bowlers all the time because I knew
we needed only one wicket and then we could have put some pressure on the remaining batsmen. Just 17 runs were needed and Sachin was in. But he made a crucial mistake and we came back fighting and knew we could win from there. When a Pakistan team learns that it has a chance to win, it can really come back from any stage.

And what about the ovation your team received at the Chidambaram Stadium?

It (the crowd) was really unique. It was almost as though we were playing in Karachi. That was really very nice of them. Thev all know their cricket, they had a good game to watch and hailed the team which won.

When Pakistan began this tour, you had said that you were looking forward to bowling to Tendulkar in Tests. How was the experience for you?

I would like to bowl to Sachin on better wickets, where the ball moves a little, so that he also knows what's coming. It was fun to bowl to him. He has a solid defence, leaves the bouncers well. I would like to bowl to him where the ball seams so that I can know how solid his defence really is.

How do you rate Tendulkar's knock in Chennai?

It was a crucial innings. It is not easy to bat that way when your side is 80-odd tor five. Mentally, he is very tough. This young boy has all the ability, all the defence and all the shots. But he needs to be more fit. He needs to train more because batting puts a lot of strain on your back and hamstring.

Akram says he would like to bowl to Sachin on wickets where the ball moves a little so he could test his defence. Photo: V.V. Krishnan   -  V.V. Krishnan

 

On the subject of Tendulkar's fitness, do you think, he erred in not asking for a runner during that innings in Chennai?

Not really. A batsman always knows when he requires a runner. When he played that last shot, perhaps, he thought it was an off-break and was confident of hitting over the top since the mid-on was up. But it was the other one from Saqlain. He was playing so well but he had to commit a mistake. And luckily for us, he committed it at the right moment.

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What are the gains from this tour?

The biggest gain is the fact that the confidence is back and the team believes that it can win. Though our batsmen did not do too well, they are working hard. Thev all want to work hard themselves. The captain or the coach need not tell them to train. The motivation is coming from within. Winning and losing is part of the game but it is important to fight it out till the very end.

How do you view Anil Kumble's 10 wickets?

It's out of this world. It's a dream-come-true for any bowler. First of all, he should thank me, because I am his 10th wicket. At no stage did Waqar (Younis) and me plan to throw our wicket to the other bowler. We had decided to play according to the situation. If he gets the 10th wicket he gets it. All the luck to him. We didn't want to intentionally deny him the honour by leaving our stumps when the other bowler was bowling. I wish, I can accomplish a similar achievement. Every bowler, before he goes to sleep, thinks of getting all 10 wickets in an innings.

And how does it feel when your team is the one against whom such a feat has been accomplished?

In a wav, it doesn't feel good when you lose the game as a result of such a performance. It wouldn't have hurt if he had taken those wickets and we had won the game. But all credit should go to Anil for bowling brilliantly. Even though the wicket was helpful, it is not easy getting 10 wickets. It is something that every bowler only dreams of. I would like to congratulate him again and say that Anil, keep going. He has all the ability, he is a clever bowler, comes back with vengeance all the time, he is a positive guy. He is a nice guy and deserves everything that he's got.

How do you judge the Indian Test and one-day teams?

In Tests, they will have to play on positive wickets, though I can't tell them to. Their batting has to come good on positive wickets. They have good fast bowlers in Srinath and (Venkatesh) Prasad. They have good spinners. But they have to play on positive wickets so that they start winning overseas. It doesn't matter if they lose at home hut they have to win overseas. And then only their team will truly be good. They have to win Test matches abroad and that's how you can improve the standard of your team. We have won less at home and more abroad. Thev will be rated and remain in reckoning only when they perform well overseas.

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And for that, India will have to prepare positive wickets at home. They may lose, but they will have to take a positive step. They have it in them to win. They have a good batting line-up to go with their attack and the bowling to back their batting. What is important is that they should not be scared of losing. The more vou are scared of losing, the more you will lose. I am never afraid of losing. Even after losing the Delhi Test, I felt normal. I accepted the fact that the other team played better and won. That's the way I take it. As long as we fight and lose, it's okay with me.

How do yo view the wickets in Chennai and Delhi?

I think the one in Chennai was good. That was a good Test wicket, there was bounce, it had spin and
even the ball was coming on to the bat. But in Delhi, it was a dead, dead track.

What is your assessment of Ramesh and Laxman?

I am very much impressed with Ramesh. He is quite positive and he plays his game. He is not afraid to play his shots and that's a very good sign from a young opener. It was a big match for him in Chennai and he was under pressure but he played his own game. Had he got out early in the second innings in Delhi..., though he was out to the very first ball I bowled... a big leg-before, but he has the talent. No doubt about it. I would like to see him bat where the ball is moving a little. At present, he stands in one place and plays. He is young, has the timing and reflexes. He has the temperament and after the innings in Delhi, he is sure to gain in confidence. Laxman can improve, but he is more of a leg-side player. He will have to strengthen his off-side play.

What about Laxmi Ratan Shukla, the young all-rounder from Calcutta?

That boy is still too young. I saw him at Gwalior and invited him to my room. He told me that no one had told him about specific training methods. Like all young fast bowlers, he wanted to know how to increase pace. I told him what to do with his bowling. Pace can be increased only through bowling. The more you bowl, the more your bowling muscles gain strength. That takes hard work.
About his action, I will have to see him a little more at the nets to advise him.

What makes you the kind of bowler which we don't get to see in modern day cricket? Is it talent, hard-work, a combination of both or observation?

Talent was there, so I was told. Thereafter, it was hard-work. With talent, you can survive, say, for five years but not 15. I had two very good teachers - Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. One was shrewd and the other one, gutsy, positive. They guided me how to work hard and when to do what. I picked up a lot of things from these two teachers. What I learnt from Imran was that hard work surely pays. As a captain, if I work hard, I can tell those who are not working hard to leave. But if I am not putting in enough work, then I can’t tell my team. So I have to set an example for the younger members of the team.

What do you have to say about the captaincy skills you have cultivated?

I don't plan the things in advance. I go out there and plan according to situation. One has to keep in mind how a particular batsman is playing, his strengths, his weaknesses. I always ask my senior players to tell me what they think in that situation and then I choose the best alternative.

In your opinion, what is the single most important point to remember as a skipper?

I learnt a lot about captaincy from Imran and Miandad. One was the importance of remaining positive no matter what the situation was. Even when defeat stares in the face, a captain should not lose heart. If I falter, my team which would have otherwise lost after 10 overs, will give it awav in three overs. I always believe that one should never lose hope. In cricket, the strangest of things have
happened and anything can happen anytime. 1 have learnt a lot and continue to do so.

Do you subscribe to the view that captains are born and not made?

In my opinion, nobody is a born-captain. For instance, Sachin was removed from captaincy just when he was getting ready for the job. After Azhar, who will take over? Who else but Sachin. I am sure Sachin will prove to be a good captain. Captaincy, too, is a kind of job you have to get used to.

Akram is caught by V. V. S. Laxman off Kumble, in the Delhi Test. "First of all, he should thank me because I am his 10th wicket," says the pace ace. Photo: S. Subramanium

 

What else is left for you to achieve?

My goal now is to break the record of Kapil Dev. I may not have more than a couple of seasons to go but I have made up my mind to give it a shot. I should reach there, I guess, I am around 70 wickets short of 434. What is important for me now is get good pitches.

Talking of pitches, were the ones in Chennai and Delhi as per your expectations?

Pretty much. We knew well that the pitches in India were not meant for fast bowlers. But I still got nine wickets in two matches and I am quite pleased with my performances. I believe, a true fast bowler is the one who is successful on any kind of pitch. If I had to wait for helpful pitches to be successful, I wouldn't have got wickets in Pakistan and India. It is only now that we have dared to make green wickets in Pakistan.

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You mentioned that you lost to Zimbabwe after preparing a green wicket. What went wrong?

At that time, captaincy was a big issue. Captain has to be quite likable. It is important for the captain to deserve a place in the side. You can't pick a captain and then the team. You have to pick the team first and then name the captain. Now it seems the boys are quite satisfied with the captain. I don't have a go at them unless they do something really wrong. I understand that every individual is different, everyone has a different psyche and as a captain, you have to know these things because these are very important.

On this tour, did you also pick up the qualities of an ambassador despite being a leader first?

I think, I remained a captain-cum-ambassador, though I really don't know what an ambassador is
supposed to do.

Weren't you briefed on what to say and what not to say?

I was briefed but nobody told me what to say in my speeches. Whatever I have said on this tour, are my words and what 1 felt. And I guess, so far, I have done well. I have always looked forward to coming to India. After all, we are same kind of people, I can also speak in Punjabi here.

Lastly, do you believe that cricket can really improve relations between the two countries?

I think it can and it did. People are far more relaxed now and so are the politicians from either side. There are plans to have bus-services from both ends. The Prime Ministers of both the countries have expressed their desire to visit each other. I think, cricket has helped things to move in the right direction. I have often wondered, why can't we burn our problems and have an 'Ashes' series between India and Pakistan? Let's have matches in cricket or hockey. And let's back the team which is playing better.

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