Wasim Akram laughs after the fall of a West Indies wicket
© Getty Images
21

Hate to Love

Wasim Akramam

What one Pakistani genius meant to two generations of an Indian family

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan

My grandfather was one of those soft-spoken men who turned into a blabbermouth when cricket was on. Thieves, swindlers, politicians, quacks - none of them provoked him enough to pass comment. Cricketers somehow awakened his inner animal.

Watching games on TV he would grit his teeth and knot his fists. Players he loved - mostly men from the Caribbean - were never at fault, however badly they batted or bowled. Players he disliked - mostly men who did well against his buddies from the Caribbean - were scum of the earth who had no business being within a hundred metres of a cricket field. Any umpire who dared to declare Viv Richards out was a "fraud". Any bowler who got him out was interfering with the natural order of the universe. When Ravi Shastri made the grave mistake of dismissing Richards, he was branded a makku plastry, a stupid idiot, "who has no better work in life".

Shastri wasn't a major threat, though. My grandfather knew that it wouldn't be long before his beloved Gordon and Dessie and Richie and the King and Hoops devoured those slow left-arm "lollipops". There was no need to waste his fury on Shastri.

After all Shastri was no Wasim Akram, the cricketer who could invade my grandfather's headspace, alter his mood, ruin his appetite and mess with his sleep. Akram was a menace. You knew he had been brought into the attack when my grandfather buried his forehead in his palms and screamed "akramam", the Tamil word for "atrocity". Each time Akram beat the bat and stood mid-pitch with his hands on his hips - no doubt baffled that the batsman was not even good enough to snick this routine awayswinger - my grandfather would point to the TV and yell, "Go back and bowl, nonsense fellow." If Akram let out an appeal, and followed that up with a vociferous re-appeal, he would be told to shut his mouth and accept the decision.

Wasim Akram, the cricketer who could invade my grandfather's headspace, alter his mood, ruin his appetite and mess with his sleep

You see, deep down, my grandfather was shit-scared of Akram. His angular approach to the crease, the parabolas the ball traced when it left his hand, the deathly dip as it homed in on toes: these were tricks even his great Caribbean pals weren't expert in. When a bare-headed Richards was set on 67 in a World Cup match, ready to free his arms in the end overs, bowlers were meant to quiver with fear, resigned to have their careers cut short. Not 21-year-old Akram. He glided in from over the wicket, saw Richards step away and knocked the leg stump out of the ground. My grandfather couldn't blame the umpire or the pitch or the conditions. It was obvious that Richards had been outdone.

As much as I revered my grandfather - and as much as I wanted to share his hate for Akram - I was annoyed by his West Indies obsession. Here was a team that repeatedly beat India to pulp. Their bowlers flung the ball at great speed from an unfair height. Their batsmen didn't even care for helmets when they played us. So what better way to register my protest than to cheer Akram?

Matters got dicey in late 1989, when Pakistan needed three runs from two balls to win a pulsating Nehru Cup final in Calcutta. Richards was the bowler, Akram the batsman. My grandfather prayed to several gods for the King to wipe out the atrocity that confronted him. Crouching near the sofa, I silently hoped Akram would settle the matter. Richards floated across a full toss. Akram backed away and launched the ball into orbit, not in the least concerned that me jumping up and down the hall would fully wreck my grandfather's evening.

My fascination with Akram was perhaps rooted in how freakish he was. Most cricketers I could imitate when messing around with my friends in the park. There was Srikkanth's stance and his twitchy sniff, Kapil's Natraja pull, Azhar's whip with his tongue out, Shastri's chapati shot. Akram was from a different planet. His bowling action was out of reach, and when I tried batting left-handed, brushing my hair back (even though it made a boy with a crew cut look idiotic) it was hard to middle the ball, let alone loft it over midwicket.

And how about his atrocious treatment of cricket stumps?

And how about his atrocious treatment of cricket stumps? © Getty Images

Keep in mind this was the late '80s and early '90s, when we kids yearned for an Indian bowler to terrify opponents, when selectors searched far and wide for the next Kapil, and when newspapers carried stories of how we may have finally found a spearhead in Rashid Patel. Or Salil Ankola. Or Vivek Razdan. Or Atul Wassan. Or Bhupinder Singh Sr. Or Prashant Vaidya. Meanwhile Akram began to get on my nerves with his mastery. He harassed West Indies both home and away, bullied Australia in their backyard, left England gasping for breath with reverse swing and used New Zealand's batsmen for yorker practice wherever they turned up. Plus, he made crucial runs from the lower order, laughing at our expense. How's that search for the next Kapil going, chaps, he seemed to be saying after every rapid thirty.

One of the last matches my grandfather watched was the World Cup final in 1992. His health had deteriorated by then and cricket didn't excite him as much anymore. He kept silent for most of the game and took a nap midway through the Pakistan innings. The only time I got a glimpse of my grandfather of old was during the two magic balls that Akram conjured. The Lamb wicket drew out a handclap but it was the Lewis wicket that got his eyes to bulge and made him announce: "Game over."

He had seen the world's best bowler take over the biggest stage. And given all he had seen of Akram, he knew it was curtains.

****

Years later, when in Lahore to cover an India tour, a couple of us sought out Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum to talk about match-fixing, and the report he had submitted in 2000. We didn't anticipate anything new to emerge - and I remember turning on the Dictaphone as an afterthought - but there he was, admitting to having had a "soft corner" for Akram and that he hadn't wanted a "great player" like him to be banned, especially towards the end of his career. This was a bizarre confession at the time, and it took me a few days to get over the shock (and the thrill of having landed the scoop). I was disturbed that a bowler as extraordinary as Akram would have cared for low lives like bookies and fixers. But, now that I look back, it was also incontestable evidence of Akram's universal appeal: for those like me who were awestruck, those like my grandfather who hated his guts and those like Justice Qayyum who sat in judgement.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA

 

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  • POSTED BY Choton on | September 20, 2017, 17:44 GMT

    Nice article, Mr. Vaidyanathan. As an aside, I wish I was there to watch your grandpa's reaction when Kapil's devils beat the mighty WI to lift the world cup in 1983!!

  • POSTED BY jasprit on | September 15, 2017, 16:05 GMT

    Akram was a better one day bowler. Probably the best with white ball.But as a test bowler, he is nowhere near the top. He never ran through a side in tests, never had a blowout series, never had a blowout innings, never had a blowout spell. Just a steady, decent left arm quick in tests who will test the batsmen and perform above average. But with white ball, he came into his own. His mastery over the ball was beyond compare. He should be given a doctorate for his mastery over the ball and the way he could make the ball behave any way and any direction he wanted. Probably the greatest odi quick along with Joel Garner. Cheers!

  • POSTED BY Raja on | September 12, 2017, 19:08 GMT

    Wow Sidvee, what lured me to the article was 'akramam'. As I read on though, I couldn't help but be awestruck at a whole truckload of coincidences! Started from grandpa being soft spoken, except when watching cricket, to monikers like makku plastry and akramam (though I was hardly 7 or 8, I vividly remember an Ind-Pak match when he said "Akram paazha ponavan akramam pannindrukkan", as he was finishing up his curd rice and non-spicy lemon pickle), right down to 1992 being his last World Cup (though we didn't watch the final together). Thanks for taking me on a heartwarming trip down the memory lane! :)

  • POSTED BY Harsh on | September 12, 2017, 17:39 GMT

    Wasim Akram took creative genius in fast bowling to its greatest depth being the equivalent of A Michelangelo or Beethoven to cricket.No paceman posessed as much natural talent,Wasim's bowling possessed the skill of an engineer ,the creativity of a sculptor and the wizardry of a magician .No paceman ever mastered the art of reverse swing as much or was as versatile as Wasim.Above all he championed the cause on flat subcontinent pancakes.Wasim did not do complete justice to his phenomenal talent otherwise he could have been in the league of Bradman or Sobers.Significant that Viv Richards,Lara and Kallis rate him the hardest bowler they ever faced.Arguably Wasim was the cricketer of the 1990s.

  • POSTED BY Rammohan on | September 12, 2017, 9:37 GMT

    Two of my greatest memories of my life has been 1) Seeing Sunil Gavaskar's epic 96 in his last test innings on a minefield of a pitch. I also watched as a young impressionable 16 year old in awe of a callow youth of supreme ability going about his business around the field. 2) Being part of the crowd in the WC quarter finals b/w India & Pakistan & much as I rejoiced India's emphatic victory I did feel a tinge of sadness seeing a great bowler like Waqar Younis being hammered around the park for his last 2 overs by Ajay Jadeja( He had till then bowled magnificently over 2 spells for 27 runs in 8 overs & 2 wickets.). An bigger regret was not being able to watch Wasim Akram in action(He probably was at his peak of his abilities.) coz he sat out of the game due to a side strain.

  • POSTED BY Harsh on | September 12, 2017, 6:52 GMT

    Amongst the pantheon of great fast bowlers perhaps Wasim would rank below Marshall,Lillee,McGrath or Hadlee as he lacked the crucial ingredient of temperament ,control and accuracy to the degree those bowlers possessed.Sad Wasim did not run through an innings s like Ambrose and Imran or had best figures like them.Stil I would have Wasim as my First choice amongst paceman in my all time xi with his left-arm prowess and phenomenal versatility.Wasim also did not take Pakistani cricket to it's pinnacle of glory in test cricket like Imran.Still to me Wasim was the most complete of pace bowlers.

  • POSTED BY Suresh on | September 11, 2017, 13:55 GMT

    McGrath, Anderson... et al have no right to stand in the same room as Akram

  • POSTED BY riaz on | September 11, 2017, 10:10 GMT

    Akram was the finest exponent if fast bowling the game has ever seen and as a lower order hitter, he was what England look for their 8s and 9s in the modern game. The problem of someone like Akram, and YOunis too of course, is that the PCB, the media and the fans have all been searching for the "next Wasim and Waqar" and we have to understand, there will never be another pair like the, just like there will never bee a offy like Murali or a leggy like Warne. Every sport has its peak participants, after which all other's pale. Boxing had the two Sugars and Ali, cricket has had its greatest fast bowlers too.

  • POSTED BY victoria on | September 10, 2017, 17:38 GMT

    @TALHA: You are spot on! Those two guys definitely made our cricket day in that era. And talking about Lara, I didn't see Bradman; but I saw both Gary Sobers and Viv Richards; and I don't think that anything whatsoever can be taken away from especially Sobers - Viv is right there with them too. But Lara has done some really awesome things that not even Bradman did. If you search the record books for awesome batting, I think that he would give Bradman a real run for his money - as you always see every time the analysts do their various assessments. I think that Mohammed Ali was to boxing, what Lara was to batting. You don't keep their records for long!

  • POSTED BY Muhammad Amjad on | September 10, 2017, 14:12 GMT

    Great Article......Funny and sad too....Wasim has no match till now....Wasim waqar Combo was Master piece of their Era....Love that duo.....

  • POSTED BY Talha on | September 10, 2017, 1:37 GMT

    The biggest pleasure I have ever derived from Cricket is watching Lara bat and Akram bowl (fullstop)

  • POSTED BY randolf on | September 9, 2017, 22:06 GMT

    Wasim Akram is undisputedly, the greatest fast bowler of All Time - PERIOD! And he's second only to Mutiah Muralitheran as the greatest man who has ever bowled a cricket ball. I've seen all of them.

  • POSTED BY moshoa0670130 on | September 9, 2017, 18:13 GMT

    I am from india and i grown up by seeing akram vs sachin. To be frank there is no bowler till now in cricket world whom we can say second Wasim. He has won so many matches only with his bowling. The best fast bowler of world cricket

  • POSTED BY aatiff8715508 on | September 9, 2017, 17:46 GMT

    Don't know if the cricket fans around the world would ever get to see a bowling action more beautiful than Wasim Akram's. Reverse swinging right after few steps, the captains didn't have to worry about time which these days they have to.

  • POSTED BY Ali on | September 9, 2017, 16:57 GMT

    A very well written article. It was a joy to read and made me laugh out loud at more than one point. I have seen a fair few bowlers over time and none could work their magic on the ball like wasim could.

  • POSTED BY Malik on | September 9, 2017, 16:33 GMT

    Wow! An excellent article. Wasim Akram is still hero for many cricketers of last couple or decades. Still he has charismatic elements while he appears for interviews and do commentary. His bowling action is very unique and attractive. His aggression during the field was unmatched. Great Wasim Bhai!

  • POSTED BY Ashok on | September 9, 2017, 15:29 GMT

    For people like me, who grew up in the 90s, Akram will always remain the ultimate bowler. I have never seen any bowler who could get the ball to do his bidding the way he did. There's also the fact that he was a brilliant reader of the game. Hearing his commentary, its not difficult to see what made him such a genius. #legend

  • POSTED BY Ramesh on | September 9, 2017, 13:07 GMT

    yes Sir, Wasim Akram was Wasim Akramam, We still feel Wasim was greatest Left arm fast bowler, "Akramam" is a typical Thanjavur Brahmin language, and in 1960s, forget about victories, we used to pray for a Draw when India plays, and used pray a for a century in a series, by Indian batsmen. Innings defeat was a common occurrence. I still remember those golden days of listening to Running commentaries from neighbourhood uncles. Excellent article interspersed thanjavur Tamil words. Thanks once again.

  • POSTED BY Najeeb Ullah Khan on | September 9, 2017, 12:04 GMT

    Beautiful written! Made me smile... and a little sad in the end.

  • POSTED BY Unni on | September 9, 2017, 7:24 GMT

    The thing that always makes me wonder is how Akram generates so much pace with so short a run-up and a shuffle. When Gilchrist was at his prime, hammering bowlers to all parts of the ground, Akram used to get the better of him most of the time by cramping him for room

  • POSTED BY mustafa on | September 9, 2017, 5:05 GMT

    wow........What an effort SIDDHARTHA VAIDYANATHAN. I was reading the article and never wanted it to end. Perfect way to describe the mastery of Legend "Sir Wasim Akram".