By Saj Sadiq
Regarded by many as the greatest left-arm fast bowler ever and a hard-hitting left-handed batsman, Wasim Akram holds near legendary status among fans of cricket around the world.
In his heyday, he formed a formidable partnership with fellow Pakistani Waqar Younis and was instrumental in the destruction of many a batting order. Taking 414 Test wickets at an average of 23.62 and scoring 2898 runs in 104 Test matches, Wasim is to this day hailed as the “king of swing” who could toy with batsmen at will. His superiority was not reserved for one format alone. He took 502 wickets in ODIs as well, averaging 23.52 per wicket with the absolute pinnacle of his career being encapsulated in none other than the breathtaking spell in the World Cup final of 1992 that saw him bowl some unplayable deliveries to the England batsmen.
A household name in TV commentary and analysis these days, Wasim continues his association with the game by involving himself in shaping cricketers of tomorrow: his recent efforts to help young Pakistani bowling talent in Karachi has earned him further plaudits and in an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Wasim speaks in detail about issues such as the progress made by Junaid Khan and Mohammad Irfan, as well as his impressions on the form of Wahab Riaz and his expectations of Mohammad Aftab and much more.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): We’ve seen a better performance in the Caribbean by Pakistan compared to the Champions Trophy. What do you put that down to?
Wasim Akram (WA): I think the Champions Trophy was a wake-up call for everyone involved in Pakistan cricket. The selectors and the rest of the think tank had to re-examine their strategies and had to quite rightly drop the likes of Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik.
Well done to Pakistan; they won both series in the Caribbean and Misbah-ul-Haq led from the front once again in the 50-over format. Also, I was delighted for Shahid Afridi who yet again made another good comeback. Whenever you drop Afridi, he comes back with a bang.
PP: One of the decisions the selectors and the think tank made was to give the wicket-keeping gloves to Umar Akmal. Do you approve of that decision?
WA: No I don’t agree with it. It’s not going to work. He’s a very talented batsman but at the highest level of cricket you need a proper wicketkeeper. By asking Umar to keep wicket just increases the pressure on him as he’s not a regular wicketkeeper and does not keep wicket in domestic cricket either.
PP: Moving on to the bowlers and their performance in the West Indies: Wahab Riaz after a good performance at the Champions Trophy was dropped for the fifth One-Day International and didn’t feature in the Twenty20 Internationals. In your opinion what are the issues with Wahab’s bowling?
WA: It has to be psychological issues with Wahab and nothing else. He has the skills, he has the pace but he has to believe in himself. I know he has problems bowling the delivery that comes back into the right-handers because his wrist is so tight. I spoke with Wahab at length at the bowling camp we had earlier this year and I told him to concentrate on his strengths and not to worry about trying to bowl the inswinger to the right-handers.
Consistency comes with being mentally strong and if you aren’t mentally strong then you will not find that consistency. If you are rattled by a couple of boundaries then you aren’t mentally strong and that I’m afraid is what happens to Wahab. He needs to improve his mental toughness.
The head coach and the bowling coach need to address the issue with Wahab, they need to talk to him, help him, support him especially when the chips are down and when he gets hammered. He has the talent but he has to learn to handle the pressure as he is the most experienced of the fast bowlers currently in the team. If he doesn’t find consistency soon in his performance he’s going to get the chop at some stage and struggle to get back into the side.
PP: You worked with the best bowling talent in Pakistan earlier this year. Should we be excited or is there a shortage of good fast bowlers coming through?
Wasim Akram : I had 18 bowlers at my camp and they were very good. I was impressed with them all. They all had decent pace and could swing the ball, some more than others but I think the Pakistani fast bowling factory is still producing the goods.
PP: Mohammad Irfan has made quite a start to his international career. How important is it that Irfan is utilised properly and given adequate rest?
WA: Well, he’s literally come into international cricket from nowhere. He was playing in domestic cricket for 18 months or so and wasn’t really given a chance for Pakistan, but his performance levels in domestic cricket brought him to the attention of the selectors and he deserves his chance.
He’s 31 years old and that is the important part. He has made a very good start to his international career and he’s worked very hard to get his body ready for the rigours of international cricket. With his height and the weight he is carrying, he has to be in top physical shape and whenever I’ve met him I’ve constantly reminded him about his diet and what he should and shouldn’t be eating. I’ve said to Irfan several times that he needs to be more careful with what he eats. I reminded him that he’s a professional cricketer and to ensure that he’s eating more vegetables rather than regularly eating chicken curries.
The problem is that there isn’t a lot of guidance for our cricketers with regards to dietary plans and this is definitely an area that Pakistan cricket can improve upon. It’s not just Irfan who needs to be wary of what he eats, there are others within the squad that this advice applies to.
PP: Junaid Khan is already making rapid strides in international cricket. What do you make of Junaid and what he needs to work on to further enhance his credentials?
WA: He’s a very talented bowler and he already has that ability to swing the ball both ways. His natural delivery is the outswinger to the right-hander, which is the delivery that he is most comfortable bowling, but he’s also developed the inswinger to the right-handers and he’s only 23 years old. When I think back to when I was 23, I had so much to learn and there was so much development to my bowling that came after that age.
Junaid will have phases where things don’t click for him; we all went through those phases so it’s important that he gets the support and backing of the coaching staff and his senior players. But he’s a bowler with immense potential and has really impressed me.
PP: Would you agree that the lack of Test cricket particularly at home is hurting the development of Pakistan’s cricketers?
WA : Absolutely. Look at the number of Test matches that some countries are playing each year compared to Pakistan. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) needs to address this issue and make it one of their priorities as Pakistan is simply not playing enough Test cricket. The Pakistan cricket team simply cannot compete in Test cricket with nations who are playing much more Test cricket than they are. The more Test cricket the Pakistanis play, the better they will become.
In addition, more Under-19 tours and ‘A’ tours need to be organised by the PCB. There seems to be very little planning and forward thinking regarding the Under-19 teams and ‘A’ teams. The Under 19 teams and ‘A’ teams of other leading Test nations are in action on a regular basis around the world, but unfortunately there seems to be very little movement on this from the PCB.
Also, the best coaches in Pakistan need to be working with the Under-19 boys and those on the fringes of selection. There seems to be a mentality at the moment in Pakistan where the best coaches only want to be the head coach of the senior team and don’t wish to work with the Under-19s and other junior teams. This mentality needs changing so that the boys coming through the ranks from the Under-19 team and the ‘A’ team are fully prepared by the coaches for the challenges of international cricket.
PP: Speaking of the Pakistan Under-19s, they are in England at the moment. How important are such tours for the development of young cricketers and what should they be looking to get out of such tours?
WA: Make the most of these tours. Absorb the information. Learn from the experience are the messages I have for these youngsters. There is a young man selected for this Under-19 tour named Mohammad Aftab, who attended my training camp. He’s not very tall but is skiddy and quick and I think he will do well in England. He impressed me at the camp and I think he has a bright future providing he continues to work hard and improve.
What concerns me though is the level of coaching expertise that is being sent with the Under-19 teams. Javed Miandad should have been the head coach of the Pakistan Under-19 team which is currently in England. However, it seems that as I said earlier everybody wants to be the head coach of the Pakistan senior team.
For example the great Australian cricketer Allan Border worked with the Under-19 teams, he did not ever say that working with the Under-19s was beneath him. The mindset of some former cricketers in Pakistan needs to change with regards to who they will and won’t coach.
PP: How would you rate the job Mohammad Akram has done in his tenure as the bowling coach?
WA: I think he’s done a good job. I also feel that you should not change your bowling coach every few months. It’s an important role and it’s one that needs stability. The boys that he is working with like him, he’s earned the respect of the players that he is working with and very importantly he’s trusted by the players. He’s a quiet and level headed guy and I think he’s performed well in the role considering it is his first international assignment.
PP: India and Pakistan have been drawn in the same group for the 2015 World Cup. Pakistan of course has never defeated India in a World Cup match…..
WA: Thanks for the reminder. I’m constantly reminded of those statistics by some co-commentators and friends at the Indian channel that I work for.
PP: I know it’s still a long way off but do you think Pakistan could defeat the Indians this time?
WA: The Indians have moved ahead of Pakistan as far as cricket is concerned. They’re organising more tours around the world for all of their teams at all levels. Everybody wants to play against India at home or in India, so they are playing a lot more cricket than Pakistan and that has an impact on the quality of player you produce.
They also have the Indian Premier League (IPL) which has been a major boost for their cricket and their players.
From the Pakistani perspective the planning has to start right now. The selectors need to think about who is going to be playing at the 2015 World Cup, get the players ready who are going to be an integral part of that squad. If you keep picking players, then dropping them, then bringing them back that is not going to work. Pakistan needs to have a settled squad going into the World Cup rather than going into the tournament with rookies and untried players.
PP: Do you think preparations are going well ahead of the 2015 World Cup?
WA: Not really. The Champions Trophy was a poor tournament for Pakistan where they lost all three matches. Defeating West Indies isn’t exactly an earth-shattering achievement as they aren’t the best one-day side in the world.
My concern is whether the Pakistani batsmen will be able to perform in Australia and New Zealand as the wickets will not be flat and there will be extra bounce available to the opposition bowlers on some of the wickets. We saw the Pakistani batting struggle at the Champions Trophy and that is an area of our cricket that needs immediate attention.
(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)