We will miss them when they go


THE end of the English summer used to leave a month or so of free time in which we could look back on the golden days, hope that the winter months would bring great deeds from abroad and say farewell to our retiring heroes.

Those times are gone, perhaps forever. The ICC, deliberating after their Trophy matches in Colombo, have issued guidelines which suggest that there ought to be a gap between tours and series. They sound anything but optimistic and around the world players are preparing for another hard slog.

England's elite have put up a fight for Christmas at home in the last few years but this winter they face not only the rigours of the sweat bowl known as Khettarama but three months in Australia and five weeks in South Africa for the World Cup.

Don't misunderstand me. I am not pleading for longer holidays for these well-paid athletes and England are not alone in their concerns with burn-out. India rushed straight from the Trophy in Sri Lanka to a series against West Indies although they had already played in 11 Tests and 26 one-dayers this year; Australia stayed in Sri Lanka to play Pakistan before the Ashes series. The calendar overflowed once Bangladesh, now in South Africa for yet another good hiding, came into the equation.

And the World Cup looms. Not as a festival of cricket, but as the tournament in which patched up players, worn out coaches and desperately tired superstars will be expected to display their best tricks. I hope they are not too much of a disappointment.

Television is leading the way, the eager sponsors have followed and now, it seems, there is no limit to the amount of cricket available to our screens. You can only conclude it must be the cheapest television man's mind can devise.

Before the ICC Trophy finals were done Sky TV was boasting that the South Africa-Bangladesh matches would be on our screens shortly. Really!

Is there any audience for such delights? Yet another chance to see that Jacques Kallis can score heavily off second-rate bowling, that the Grand Prix line-and-length pace of Shaun Pollock is too much for batsmen still, metaphorically, wet behind the helmet and that Jonty Rhodes can run sideways at a pace no cover point has ever achieved. Nor will until wings are fitted to nuclear-powered boots. (Oh, if only he could hit the stumps in the same regular fashion).

For some therefore this winter will be a series too far. Expect more players to suffer injuries, more to look stale, more to sigh deeply, some to collapse altogether.

There are two men, approaching the autumn of their careers, who will not sigh for a hammock or a deckchair, look as if they are competing in one game too many, or smile happily only when the day is done.

Wasim Akram has already given hints that the World Cup will mark the end of his career; Waqar Younis his companion and successor as captain of Pakistan cannot be far behind him in the retirement stakes.

Was there ever a more destructive fast bowling pair? I doubt it.

Right and left, power and pace, subtle brains allied to wonderful physical conditioning. Lindwall and Miller; Trueman and Statham; Holding, Marshall, Garner and Croft; Ambrose and Walsh; Lillee and Thomson; Pollock and Donald also had this recipe for immortality? They may have been as good but they were no better.

Ten years ago I saw Waqar running with great rhythm and power, out of the logo at Headingley with the second new ball, swerving those terrifying middle stump yorkers into the batsman's bootlaces and effectively winning that Test. Only the greatest artists can inflict that sort of damage.

He looks strong and, despite an injury or three along the way, he has lost none of the stamina necessary to bowl at 90 miles an hour in the sun. His burly physique must make a batsman quiver; heaven knows how they feel when he lets go the ball.

In the last 13 years and 80 Tests Waqar has sent on their way 355 batsmen for a tiny cost of 22.98. His 248 games have brought 395 one-day victims at a remarkable 23.79.

He taught the world the meaning of reverse swing and although he has many imitators he is still its finest exponent. He also showed us that you don't have to produce four throat balls an over to frighten batsmen or take wickets; that the bouncer is still best when it is used sparingly.

Waqar prefers to hit you on the toe rather than threaten your hairpiece. As for pace he has always had enough with just a little in reserve, like a classic car. His method has made him the fast bowler with the best strike rate of any of those who have more than 200 Test wickets.

"I'm not a good batsman," he confessed in the Surrey dressing room when he first came to England. One of the team's bright-eyed boys sat him down. "If you go on bowling like you did today," he said, "it will be down to us to do your batting." A Test average of 10 tells you how well he has heeded that advice.

I will never forget Wasim's great moment in the final of the 1992 World Cup when he carved England's middle order to pieces in his second spell and bowled Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis in the same over.

His finest ball is the full-length inswinger that turns a corner just as it reaches the hesitant bat and heads off towards the slips.

Unplayable, inimitable, and without peers as a single delivery it was born in the days when ball tampering was still an issue and remains as a tribute to the most talented fast bowler of his generation.

When he was with Lancashire their leading batsmen would not face him in the nets. I saw him make a fool of Salim Malik one day at a Sydney practice.

Statistically, Wasim is on a par with Waqar. He began in New Zealand in 1984-5 and since then he has taken 414 Test wickets at 23.62 in 104 matches; his 479 one-day victims have cost 23.82 in 343 matches.

His batting is natural. That is to say he can hit the ball a mile and often does although sometimes he seems to be overwhelmed by the desire to hit too early, too often. It means he has underachieved.

That's a pity because in full flow he is one of the finest clean hitters.

His Test average is just 22.64 although his 257 not out against Zimbabwe a few years ago suggests that it should be higher. The most notable figure is his one-day strike rate: 88.13 is up there with Sanath Jayasuriya, Saeed Anwar and Michael Bevan and indicates that, batting in the lower middle order, Wasim made every attempt to use the last few overs profitably.

Add the important bits of their cricket together and it means that this couple have 1643 international wickets to their credit. That is destruction on a scale unknown since the last hurricane season. Feel free to argue about their place in the pecking order when you have an hour or two to spare.

If they had achieved such figures in England they would have been knighted, American baseball would give them places in a Hall of Fame. Cricket offers only a place as one of Wisden's Five Players of the Year, a miserable substitute.

Let's hope the new Federation of International Cricketers Association spends some time devising a greater award. It will earn FICA more friends than their constant battle to keep control of the huge sums of money, important as that may be.

No doubt Pakistan will find ways of honouring the two Ws when they go for they have also led their country and, despite all the unsubstantiated talk of matches that were lost when they should have been won, brought glory to a nation which likes to hold its head higher than most.

The ordinary spectator, the television viewer and the critic will remember this wonderful pair for another reason, the most important.

Whether Waqar was running in on a dry dusty pitch in the sub-continent or Wasim curving his way towards the wicket on a damp morning in Manchester they added an extra dimension to the game; colour, charisma, character and an explosive element that is the emblem of the superstar.

That is why we will miss them when they go.