Book Review | Sultan of swing reveals much in splendid memoir

Wasim Akram has chosen to tell a lot of what had seemed were matters considered never to be spoken about. He may not have been totally honest about the dark underbelly of international cricket that had led to a loss of its squeaky-clean image because of betting and match and spot-fixing, but he has been quite forthcoming on most issues to do with Pakistan cricket.

The impression everyone has always carried of the Pakistan cricket team was that it was a bunch of egomaniacs who could be brought together only by the likes of Imran Khan. But none knew in detail the number of clashing personalities within the team. Akram, who has been brutally honest about his fellow players, opens out on all the intrigues that went on in the team of mercurial talent but erratic performances that ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

In choosing to collaborate with the Australian cricket writer Gideon Haigh for this authorised autobiography, the Sultan of Swing may have picked as well as he bowled those masterly reverse-swinging red and white cricket balls. As Shane Warne’s biographer, Gideon had done an excellent job in bringing out the fullness of the achievements and the personality of the protagonist.

Wasim is probably a far more complex character than Warne and he may not even have wished to say all that he promised to in the introduction. One gets the feeling Gideon may have coaxed a lot more out of Wasim than the cricketer from the streets of Lahore, who grew into a rounded personality after spending considerable time around the cricketing universe, may have wished to spill.

Wasim spells out the reasons why he chose to go public so many years after hanging up his bowling boots and the willow he could wield with considerable elan when his heart was in it. “I have made some terrible mistakes. I harbour some deep regrets,” he writes with disarming honesty even as he says he decided to have his say because the people he was naming, and shaming were not worthy like the true people of Pakistan who were cricket lovers.

Where Wasim really takes off, besides spewing venom on the likes of Saleem Malik and others of his team with whom he did not get along well, is on the English. He calls their hypocrisy, which became so obvious when it came to discussing reverse swing, the potent weapon with which Pakistan’s quick bowlers became world beaters, including in the World Cup of 1992 in which they came back from the dead to surprise New Zealand and then England in the final.

When the Pakistanis made the ball reverse, critics said it was due to ball tampering, never acknowledging legitimate but cunning tactics they employed in getting the ball into the right condition – with one side kept dry and scuffed and the other shiny and wet with saliva, sweat and polishing – to make it reverse. And if the conditions were dry, and the outfield too, it took fielders who knew how to go about handling the ball make the red ball perfect for reverse swing by the likes of Akram.

Imran Khan’s confession once on the county circuit about using bottle tops to scruff up one side of the ball had come sensationally, but that was used by the English to assume that everyone who was getting the ball to reverse was a cheat. English bowlers used the bottle top trick too and they were even accused by Bishan Bedi of using Vaseline cream to make the ball swing in India. But if Asians did it, particularly Pakistanis, they had to be cheats.

Akram demolishes the discriminatory and racial attitude of the English by writing in detail how he and his partners in pace like Imran Khan and Waqar Younis did it. This may not satisfy those who have refused to budge from their position on reverse swing, but subsequent events in the game have shown that other teams, including the Australian, have tried to fix the odds if the ball was not reversing enough.

You must give it to Wasim Akram as the complete fast bowler to whom reverse swing was not the only weapon. Each chapter has an introduction by a great cricketer on what makes Akram the ultimate sultan of swing. In fact, he was modern cricket’s most inventive bowler with the new ball in his hand. Making it go here and there as if it had a will of its own. Akram redefined aerodynamics as well as physics by how much he made the ball do – or as the cricket aficionado would say, make the ball talk.

I last met Akram when I took Kapil Dev to visit him at Apollo Hospital in Chennai where his gravely ill wife Huma was being treated. The sport’s biggest bear hug was seen there as the champion all-rounders met. But Akram was a broken man then with his wife obviously dying from some form of septicaemia. Having recovered in time from that tragedy, Wasim has been fortunate in finding true love again and is a contented man today. His settled state of mind might have convinced him the time had come to tell almost the full story of his life. Sultan is a fascinating account of his colourful cricket career and intriguing events on and off it.

Sultan By Wasim Akram and Gideon Haigh

HarperCollins India

pp. 304, Rs.699

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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