The monarch of all he surveyed

G. VISWANATH

Wasim Akram, who has announced his decision to retire, will be missed by his fans the world over. — Pic. CLIVE MASON/GETTY IMAGES-

WASIM AKRAM struck like lightning when he first appeared on the scene way back in 1985 at Dunedin and nearly two decades later he has quietly faded without taking a bow on a cricket field. Most professional cricketers plan their careers and decide well in advance and announce the time of quitting from the scene. Akram might have taken a legion of his followers and Pakistanis by surprise, when he chose a television medium in England to tell the world that he has already had his last hurrah, wearing the Pakistani green cap. Perhaps it's a matter of straightaway following the communication medium preferred by the Pakistan Prime Minister, who announced the name of his country's High Commissioner to India first to a television reporter.

Unquestionably, Akram, raised on the other side of the Punjab plains and with a lone motive of outwitting batsmen off each and every ball he sent down, must be acclaimed as the best left-arm bowler cricket has ever seen. It's not the number of Tests and one-day internationals he turned up for Pakistan — 104 Tests for 414 wickets (23.62) and 356 one-day internationals for 502 wickets (23.53) — that nominates him as the monarch of all he surveyed, but it is the variety and dynamic style and effect that he naturally brought into his art that delineated him as a phenomenal cricketer. Thanks to the growth of cable television, his admirers and critics have had the privilege of seeing him perform feats and help budding bowlers lap up valuable lessons.

Left-hand batsmen have arrived, dominated and left a lasting impression, but cricket, post-war, has not been as fortunate to see as many world-class left-arm bowlers. Only two left-hand bowler-batsmen readily come to mind and they are Australia's Alan Keith Davidson and Akram. They have been peerless in their times, Davidson from 1953 to 1963 and Akram from 1985 to 2003. The emphasis here is on bowler-batsman and not the other way round, else, Sir Garfield Sobers, who was an epitome of an all-rounder, would always be on top of the pedestal. The New South Welshman, Davidson, bowled `chinaman' in his school days, but thereafter chose to become a swing bowler and was initially part of Australia's pace attack that had such illustrious names as Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Bill Johnston. Ten years after he had made his debut against England, Davidson's partner was Graham McKenzie. Of course, leg spinner Richie Benaud was a key component of Australia's bowling line-up.

Davidson played 44 Tests and took 186 wickets (84 at home and 102 away) against England, India, Pakistan, South Africa and the West Indies. He bowled at some of the great and renowned batsmen of his time such as Len Hutton, Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Ken Barrington, Ted Dexter, Frank Worrell, Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Hanif Mohammad, Polly Umrigar, Pankaj Roy, Chandu Borde and Nari Contractor.

He has been described in A-Z of Australian Cricketers as "One of the most dynamic and entertaining all-round cricketers, a penetrative, aggressive swing bowler, a clean and powerful striker of the ball and an exceptional fieldsman in any position who was known as `The Claw' because of his ability to hold improbable catches close to the bat."

The same compilation further reveals that `though Davidson was the most athletic of cricketers, he often complained of niggling injuries, which became a joke among his team-mates and that he was handled skilfully by his captain, Richie Benaud, who proved adept in coaxing more overs out of his strike bowler.'

Davidson played his part in many `Ashes' series and became famous, but a performance that exemplified his position as a true all-rounder was in the `tied' Test against the West Indies at Brisbane in the 1960-61 series. He made 44 and 88 and took 11 wickets for 222 runs, the first instance of a player scoring over 100 runs and taking more than 10 wickets in the same Test match.

The Australian is described as one who bowled at great pace and swung the ball both ways and he had the skill to swing the ball late. Recently, Bob Simpson, also of NSW, said in Mumbai that `Davo' was a great bowler who took quality wickets. Davidson did not have the opportunity to play one-day internationals and did not have the ultimate honour of leading Australia.

Akram was picked by Khan Mohammad and Javed Miandad on the tour to New Zealand in 1985. He was a raw hand then and had explosive style, swung the ball, used the width of the crease, delivered the ball varying his pace, sent down bumpers and yorkers at will and literally made the ball obey the whims of his wrist and fingers and mind. Experts were tempted to call him an `arm bowler'. Richard Hadlee said that he was too good for the top of the order batsmen and that Waqar Younis was cleaning up the lower order and tail.

Akram's captain for a few years, Imran Khan, saw him bowl first in a tri-series in Australia immediately following the series in New Zealand in 1985. Imran became his mentor, a fact Akram has acknowledged many times. Akram learnt under Imran and, within a few years, became part of the most awesome pair with Waqar Younis. He took insulin shots to maintain blood sugar levels and spearheaded the Pakistan attack from the late 80s to the turn of the new millennium. After a poor start, he struck form, took 18 wickets and helped Pakistan win the 1992 World Cup.

Davidson's career was not beset with problems but Akram's was. Pakistan's cricket and its team were riven by factions and Akram was at the helm for 25 Tests, 12 of which Pakistan won. Akram was accused of fixing matches and involved with betting syndicates and this damaged his reputation. One Pakistani judge inquiring into the match-fixing scandals went as far as advising the Pakistan Cricket Board that Akram should not be made the captain.

Akram has been lucky to play 12 Tests against India and take 45 wickets. He was the captain of the side that played a Test series in India after 12 years, in 1999. He nursed an ambition to play against India again and take the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar for zero.

He played his last Test against Bangladesh in January 2002 and his last one-dayer was against India at the Centurion during the World Cup.

The PCB dropped eight players after Pakistan's World Cup debacle and Akram was one among them. He knew his time was up and hence decided to bid adieu. Akram was a great bowler and Pakistan will find it hard to replace him with another. Of late and at 36, he depended on skill rather than pace to defeat batsmen. He took 414 wickets in Test matches and 502 wickets in ODIs.

Akram has said his future is in the media and perhaps coaching. His hand played all the tricks and beat the batsmen hands down.

Only time will tell how good he is before the mike.