Carrying pace bowling to great heights

True, there have been some formidable fast bowlers in the history of the game, but Waqar and Wasim stand out for various reasons, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

FRIENDS once, foes now! Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram form a most lethal pair, and quite an intriguing one, too. Destroying the opposition comes so naturally to them, with the ball doing all sorts of things, but sadly, their high fives these days are only contrived. People close to them know that they harbour a lot of grudge for each other, but then Waqar and Wasim have not allowed their personal emotions to cloud their commitment to the team.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis (below) shall be remembered for mastering the art of reverse swing and employing it to wreak havoc on all opponents. The ball swinging like a banana was a phenomenon made famous by Sarfaraz Nawaz, the inventor of reverse swing, but Waqar and Wasim lent a dangerous connotation to it. Batsmen had no clue when Waqar and Wasim made the ball `talk' even in conditions not suitable for the bowlers.

There was so much in common between them when Pakistan set out to conquer the cricket world. They bowled fast and to win and their fire to sweep the opposition away was so infectious that even average bowlers, who came on to relieve them, found themselves among the wickets simply because the batsmen tried to make the most of the absence of either Waqar or Wasim from the attack. Of course, those were brief respites from the fury of the explosive Pakistani pair.

Waqar was fast. Wasim was crafty, at times producing a scorcher to rattle the batsmen. Waqar always believed in blasting the batsmen away. Wasim set up his victims, working on their mind and triggering confusion in the opposition ranks. The stock of Pakistan cricket rose with the presence of these two stalwarts of fast bowling.

True, there have been some formidable fast bowlers in the history of the game, arguably greater, but Waqar and Wasim stand out for various reasons. Well, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh can be shining examples of consistency and commitment, just as Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson were, but then this Pakistani pair has commanded as much respect as the West Indians and the Australians with its colossal contribution to cricket.

It must have pained the legendary Imran Khan to see his disciples chart conflicting paths after having supported each other. Imran's vision was exemplary as he chose to back Wasim and Waqar when few were willing to put money on them. Imran was said to be the influencing force behind the appointment of Wasim as captain and Waqar as his deputy in 1994. The admiration was mutual. Waqar once said "Imran's name will be revered for centuries to come."

Wasim and Waqar shall be remembered for mastering the art of reverse swing and employing it to wreak havoc on all oppositions. The ball swinging like a banana was a phenomenon made famous by Sarfaraz Nawaz, the inventor of reverse swing, but Waqar and Wasim lent a dangerous connotation to it. Batsmen had no clue when Waqar and Wasim made the ball `talk' even in conditions not suitable for the bowlers.

Speed merchant Allan Donald has this to say on the subject of Wasim and Waqar. In his autobiography, `White Lightning', Donald says "The '95 season saw me use reverse swing for the first time with any consistency. I'd marveled at the way Wasim and Waqar had outclassed batsmen for so long with reverse swing and I wanted to add that to my bowling. Wasim's got such a fast arm that the ball is on you before you can react. He's the greatest reverse swing bowler I've ever seen." He continues, "Bowlers like Waqar have the perfect actions for reverse swing — slingy action, with the arm not brushing the right hip in the traditional manner, but delivered more front-on to the batsman."

There was the other side too to the reverse swing episode. The charges of tampering with the ball to get it to reverse swing. Ian Botham did not hide his suspicion and came down scathingly on the methods used by Wasim and Waqar. "They wait for the ball to get smacked into the boundary boards a couple of times so that the leather starts to crack. Then they work thumb and fingernails around the cracks and basically rough it up while keeping one side as shiny as possible. There were a number of times when I saw them clearly fiddling with the ball," Botham wrote in his autobiography.

The English great also recorded his praise in the same breath when he said "What saddens me is that Wasim and Waqar are extremely good ones (bowlers), good enough not to have to resort to these measures and to tamper with the ball. They both should be above all that." Botham never was going to accept the fact that Wasim and Waqar could manage "outrageous swing through legal methods."

This was one blot in their career that Waqar and Wasim had to live with. Their careers were rocked at various times with charges of ball tampering, match-fixing and conflicts with the administration, not to speak of distrust for each other, which harmed the team and of course their own interests. Wasim was shattered when Waqar led a revolt and ousted him from captaincy. Wasim regained the captaincy and then trained his guns on Waqar, who now accused his one-time friend of harming his career by denying him playing opportunities (1999 World Cup). This was so typical of the Pakistani set-up where internecine squabbles have been part and parcel of cricket history.

Botham's was not a protest in isolation and it certainly took some gloss off the feats scripted by Wasim and Waqar. Critics in the sub-continent dismissed the English opinion as frustration stemming out of repeated debacles.

Wasim and Waqar have always stood out for their willingness to bowl positively. Wasim admits he learnt this aspect of cricket from Imran and Javed Miandad, the latter having spotted and propelled him into national reckoning. Both were taught by Imran to bowl flat out even in one-day internationals and have stuck to their master's advice to this day. It is a sight to watch Waqar thunder in and pound the ball even as Wasim does so sparingly, and wisely too.

Waqar and Wasim have, all their career, proved the difference between the combating teams. If they fail, Pakistan almost certainly succumbs to the opposition and the trend has not changed for more than a decade now even though the team has had some good bowlers all along. When it comes to winning a crunch game, or dominating a key phase, the team has to fall back on Wasim and Waqar.

I remember speaking to Waqar and Wasim during a tournament in Colombo in 1994. Both had such similar views on the game and their approach to the task that one never imagined a situation where they would end up with bitter words against each other. It came to a stage where the two stopped talking to each other, a most disturbing period for Pakistan cricket. The loss was the team's and of course the two fell from grace as far as the fans were concerned. From that Colombo meeting I vividly remember how Wasim and Waqar were anxious to know what the others had to say on the various aspects of the game and how they zeroed down to one batsman they found difficult to make an impression on — Martin Crowe. The Kiwi, a technical marvel, also rated them high.

Wasim and Waqar are products of a system which encourages the aggressive instincts of a cricketer.

Imran never allowed them to compromise with a situation by bowling negatively or defensively. Fast bowlers came in clusters during a period when Wasim and Waqar set up amazing conquests around the world, reaching their peak in the home of cricket — England. Wasim foxed them with swing and Waqar stunned them with his toe-crushing yorkers. The English surrendered to the splendid mix of speed and craft as Waqar and Wasim established themselves as one of the most sensational pair of fast bowlers in the history of the game.

At times they have proved unplayable. One with his speed and the other with his skills. It can be a nightmare for the best of batsmen. Aravinda de Silva, the warrior from Sri Lanka, had once admitted that he could never relax at any stage when playing Wasim or Waqar. The other canny Sri Lankan, Arjuna Ranatunga, produced some of his best innings against the Pakistanis but always graciously acknowledged that he valued those runs the most because they had come against the best in the business of fast bowling.

It has always puzzled the Indians that Pakistan has managed to produce top quality fast bowlers. I once asked Waqar and his reply was quick, "eating habits." Strength, quite arguably, has remained the forte of Wasim and Waqar and one is not qualified to judge if it has resulted from eating habits alone.

What has stood out in Wasim's case is his ability to fight. How can one ignore his quality of changing the complexion of a game with one great delivery.

It could be the last ball before lunch or the last session of the day, or the final over of a one-day match. Wasim can be counted upon to deliver. And I have rarely seen him lose composure to the extent that the batsmen would clobber him. Waqar remains an outstanding athlete even as the demands of age have slowed down his attacking instincts. He was one bowler who would put the scare in the batsmen's minds even on placid tracks in limited overs internationals. When others bowled to contain, Waqar whistled the ball down the track to rattle the stumps or the batsmen. It was this positive streak that set him apart. There were times when Waqar was whipped around but credit to him he never compromised, remembering well the words of his mentor, Imran.

The versatile Wasim has been in the business of fast bowling for 18 years now, five years more than Waqar. Their deeds have carried Pakistan cricket to great heights, with each carrying his own niche. Statistics shall never portray the true potential of the two but they do give an idea regarding their awesome conquest.

Wasim, who takes pride in terming Lancashire his second home, served the county with great distinction, as did Waqar when he turned out for Glamorgan and Surrey. Their career records are a tribute to their calibre indeed. Wasim, in 104 Tests, has 414 wickets at an average of 23.62. In 348 one-day matches he has 488 wickets at an average of 23.65. As captain, he has 158 one-day wickets from 109 matches and 107 Test wickets from 25 matches. He last led Pakistan in a Test at Perth against Australia in 1999-2000.

Waqar's record is also impressive at 369 Test wickets from 85 matches at an average of 23.24 and 400 wickets from 252 one-day matches at an average of 23.90. As captain, after he took over in 2000-01, Waqar has not fared as well — claiming 81 wickets from 52 one-day matches and 63 Test wickets from 15 matches. The spate of defeats has also put him under pressure even though he has been entrusted with the captaincy until the World Cup.

History will record the contributions of Wasim and Waqar in glowing terms. Their contribution to the art of fast bowling remains unmatched for their efforts have come in all conditions — the placid tracks of the sub-continent being the greatest challenge. Waqar has been rated the best bowler on the docile Sharjah pitches by many a batsman and it speaks for the man's large heart to take punishment in his pursuit of glory. The criticism surrounding the deterioration of relations between them has not dampened the spirits of Wasim, 36, and Waqar, 31. They continue to steal the thunder from their much younger mates and keep reminding their detractors that they still have a lot to offer. After the first one-day match of the series against South Africa, their combined tally stood at 783 Test wickets and 888 one-day scalps. For a long, long time, the harvest shall remain unmatched in world cricket. As far as Pakistan is concerned, it shall remain eternally indebted to these two grand merchants of fast bowling.

Wasim and Waqar have forged an irony of sorts — they may have ceased to be the best of friends but continue to be destroyers in tandem — overcoming personal frustrations, crippling injuries, callous criticism, and of course some failures. In the twilight of their careers, what drives them forward, to the delight of their well-wishers, is the unflinching desire to contribute and make Pakistan a side to reckon with once again. The World Cup could still be the stage for these grand actors to vie for the oscar of cricket.