Adios Akram

GENERALLY speaking, when a great sportsman calls it a day, eulogies pour forth from every arm of the media — newspapers, magazines, television, radio, what have you.

GENERALLY speaking, when a great sportsman calls it a day, eulogies pour forth from every arm of the media — newspapers, magazines, television, radio, what have you. It is a time for nostalgic rides down memory lane, time too to express deep regret that the sport he enriched would never be the same again, time to add a final touch of gloss to his or her greatness.

This is often true even of athletes who never really touched true greatness in their careers. The moment they decide to leave, somehow their achievements are viewed through magnifying glasses, so to say. All this is good manners, surely. A very civil thing to do, to say the least.

But, it is at the time of a sportsman's leave taking that we have a golden opportunity to take a balanced view of things, to look back on his achievements dispassionately and to try and assess his position in the pantheon.

And when it comes to a personality as colourful as Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan captain, it is all the more necessary that we discard tinted glasses and get into plain-speak mode. For, it would be an insult to the multi-faceted man if we attempted anything else.

You don't need to be a Pakistani flag waver or a statistics buff to acknowledge the fact that Akram is one of the greatest cricketers the sub-continent has ever produced, a man who ranks right up there with the Kapils, Imrans and Gavaskars.

The only bowler to have claimed over 500 one-day international wickets, Akram also ended up with 400-plus Test wickets and has played some outstanding and timely innings with the bat, one of them carrying him past the 200-mark in a Test against Zimbabwe.

Halfway through a remarkable career, Akram was hailed by critics as the greatest left-arm fast bowler after the Australian Alan Davidson. But, at this point in time, one can say without doubt that he was, quite simply, the greatest left-arm fast bowler of all time. Davidson, for all his gifts, never had Akram's variety. Nor did he have a career that stretched as long as Akram's did.

At his peak, Akram was nothing less than a magician. He could make the ball do things that few fast bowlers of any era might have even dreamed of. His burst in the 1992 World Cup final, which Imran's team won handsomely, was violently beautiful, a remarkable spell of incisive, aggressive fast bowling.

Either side of that glorious effort down under, Akram was one of the most feared bowlers of his era. Some of the greatest batsmen of the 1980s, 1990s and the new millennium have acknowledged the fact that they have had trouble dealing with the devilish assortment that the great all-rounder conjured up.

Right from the time that peerless leader of men, Imran Khan, took him under his wings and encouraged him to great deeds at a very young age, Akram seemed well set on the road to greatness. And even in the twilight of his career, including in the recent World Cup in South Africa, he was a bowling force to be reckoned with, working up wonders from a short run up.

Yet, for all that, Akram was no squeaky clean hero. He was a great champion, a colourful personality, a born winner, and much more. But he was no untarnished one-dimensional hero like a Pete Sampras or a Sachin Tendulkar.

There have been accusations, from time to time, that Akram did things on the field that no gentleman cricketer would do, that he has even tampered with the ball to facilitate reverse swing. And the company he kept has often earned him a bad name casting doubts over the "results" of some of the matches in which he captained Pakistan.

But, believe it or not, all this added to his charm. During the World Cup, he was voted by South African fans as the most popular cricketer, ahead of the Tendulkars and the Laras. And those who know him readily acknowledge the warmth of his personality.

What is more, he managed to accomplish all that he did despite suffering from acute diabetes, needing insulin injections before matches most of the time. His courage in the face of adversity, both on and off the field, was legendary.

He has had his differences with the Pakistani cricket establishment — which Pakistan cricketer hasn't? — and he fell out too with his famous fast bowling partner Waqar Younis. But, to the end, Akram was a delight to watch, a great bowler who was always willing to help the younger ones (as readily acknowledged by Ashish Nehra).

Thankfully, athletic greatness does not require saintly qualities. And we can, without reservations, salute one of the greatest cricketers the sub-continent has ever produced as he prepares for life after cricket.