The first time Wasim Akram met Imran Khan, he was bowled over.
It was at the Sydney Airport in 1985. Akram had come to Australia after taking 10 for 128 at Dunedin, against New Zealand in only his second Test.
Imran’s presence and beauty was overwhelming, recalls Akram in his memoir, Sultan (co-authored by Gideon Haigh),“... he looked like a god: the face, the hair, the physique. I simply could not take my eyes off him.”
Imran indeed looked like a Greek god, reigned like a king, fought like a warrior, and led like a general. His contribution to Pakistan’s cricket – and the game in general (we should thank him for the concept of neutral umpires, for instance) – is considerable. He led Pakistan to its greatest moment in sport, the 1992 World Cup triumph in Australia, against all odds.
Akram was a key member of that team. His spell, that swung the final against England decisively in Pakistan’s favour, is still fresh in memory. Ah, those two consecutive balls that cleaned up Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis.
Akram would go on to establish himself as one of the world’s greatest left-arm fast bowlers ever. Without Imran’s mentoring, he makes it clear, he would not have become the bowler he did. He reveals at length how the great captain’s suggestions made him a better bowler at every stage.
In one of his earlier matches for Pakistan, against Australia at Melbourne in the 1985 World Championship of Cricket, Imran, from his fielding position, at mid-on or mid-off, asked him to bowl ‘full, length or yorker’. Akram had three top-order batters bowled in succession. (This was Akram’s second match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, not the first, as the book says. The first had come four days earlier, against India).
Even after Imran quit, he continued to advise his protege. During one of Akram’s multiple stints as the Pakistan captain, Imran asked him to make Shahid Afridi open in Tests. As was often the case, the move worked wonderfully. Imran, without a doubt, is one of the shrewdest readers of the game. Through Akram’s admiring yet observant eyes, we get to see him, from up close.
Sultan does much more.
It holds a mirror to cricket in Pakistan. It tells us how prodigies are picked from nowhere and groomed to be world-beaters, why a bunch of talented men are the best in the world one day and hopelessly mediocre on another. It shows how Pakistan cricket was undone by ineptitude, corruption and intense rivalries, and mutual distrust within the team. And of course, it tells us Akram’s fascinating journey from the streets of Lahore to Lord’s and beyond.
Sultan does all that most engagingly.
That, though, is something we expect from Haigh, one of cricket’s finest writers. Akram could not have hoped for a better Boswell.
There are many things that make Sultan unputdownable. Style is one. A liberal use of anecdotes is another.
When Akram was selected to play for his first tour with the Pakistan team, to New Zealand in 1985, he called up captain Javed Miandad and asked him how much the trip would cost. “100,000 rupees,” Miandad said.
A dejected Akram told him, “Javed bhai, my dad would never give me that amount of money. I am sorry, I won’t be able to come.”
When Miandad said that he would not have to pay anything and that he would instead get paid, he could not believe it. There are also some well-known incidents that would put a smile on your face.
Remember Inzamam-ul-Haq’s altercation with a spectator who heckled him by calling him Aloo (potato) during a Sahara Cup One Day International between India and Pakistan in 1997? The gifted Pakistani batter, who was fielding, waded into the crowd with a bat in his hand. The bat was provided by twelfth man Mohammad Hussain.
Over to Akram:
“What were you doing?” I asked Hussain afterwards.
“Inzy bhai asked for a bat,” he mumbled.
“Why could a guy in the field want a bat for?”
I said, exasperated. ‘If he’d asked you for a knife, would you have got him a knife?”
But Hussain was not very bright.
Akram’s memories, observations and sense of humour find vivid expression in the company of Haigh. Shoaib Akhtar’s obsession with breaking the 100 miles-per-hour barrier during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, is neatly summed up: he was like a vain man who cannot tear himself away from a mirror.
Before Akhtar’s emergence, it was Akram’s new-ball partnership with Waqar Younis, his own discovery, which terrorised batters around the world. Sultan, in fact, discusses the craft of fast bowling at some length. Students of the game would find Akram’s explanation of reverse swing pretty interesting.
Those looking for Akram’s take on cricket’s darkest sin – match-fixing – would not be disappointed, either. The man himself had faced allegations and was even penalised. He explains his position and elaborates on fellow quick bowler Ata-ur-Rehman’s claim that he had offered him money to bowl badly in an ODI.
Akram is scathing in his attack against former teammates Salim Malik, who was banned for life for his role in match-fixing, as well as the likes of Aamer Sohail and Rashid Latif, who had made revelations about the corrupt practice. The book speaks in detail about match-fixing. There is also plenty of information in the public domain, but we may never know the extent of it, though.
Akram’s durable and profitable stint with the English county side, Lancashire, Pakistan’s rivalry with India, including the tours of this country in 1987 and 1999, also make for interesting reading. He also talks candidly about his personal life, including his addiction to cocaine. He paints fond pictures of the two women in his life, Huma, whom he lost, and Shaniera, the Australian, who thought Pakistan was actually in India.
Sultan is a marvellous read.
Click on the link to check out the book on Amazon.