Five years since he quit the game, Wasim Akram is as sharp with a provocative opinion as his bowling used to be in his heyday
Wasim Akram has a presence, and you react when you first see him. Bright-coloured shirts, designer glasses, the dense long hair - he retains every bit of flair that went with being perhaps the greatest left-arm fast bowler of them all. Not many former players manage to keep the charm they had as players: Viv Richards, for instance, has, and so has Akram. When he was playing, it didn't matter how many wickets he had taken: every new wicket brought him a child-like joy. Talk to him about how he would adjust in today's batsman-dominated cricket and the eyes light up. He has learned how to bowl slow bouncers, no matter that he doesn't need to bowl them; he gets excited when he sees a young talent; and he is still a funny young man, as this conversation - where he ranges from the art of reverse swing to captaincy to politics in the Pakistan cricket - shows.
Everybody wants to know how Wasim would have adjusted to Twenty20?
I would have enjoyed Twenty20. A couple of things: it would have suited my batting style, and of course, it would have suited my bowling too. Because you need a lot of varieties in Twenty20. Only yorkers and slower balls won't do. Nowadays you can bowl the slower bouncer...
How difficult is it to bowl the slower bouncer?
It is quite difficult. You have to be very confident of yourself. You have to be accurate, otherwise you will probably get hit for six. You have to be brave.
These pitches [Asia Cup] are not helping bowlers. How would you deal with them?
We played on these pitches every time we played one-day cricket in Pakistan; I don't want to blame the wickets. We all played on these tracks only, and we managed.
Considering the way the game is heavily loaded against the bowlers. Don't you think there should be some rule changes to make it more even?
For 50-over cricket, the ICC has to sit down, the cricketing brains have to sit down, and do something about the over numbers 20 to 40 - find out what they can do for the bowlers.
Any ideas you have in mind? For instance, should ball-tampering be made legal?
I haven't sat down. I am not playing, so I am hardly bothered. Had I been playing I would have come up with some solution, I suppose, eventually.
Why haven't you got into coaching, shared your knowledge?
Coaching is a very different skill. You need patience, you need a lot of organisation. I don't have any. I can make a good consultant, I can fine-tune bowlers, give them mental toughness, talk about how to bowl under pressure, how to bowl with the old ball. But I can't make a good full-time coach.
Who are the bowlers going around that excite you?
Brett Lee, of course. He is the best bowler in the world right now. Ishant Sharma - but he has to learn quickly. He has been very average in the Asia Cup. His length has to change in one-day cricket. He is a wicket-taking bowler, he has to get the new ball. You can't have your third seamer bowling with the new ball.
Indian bowlers bowl well in helpful conditions in England, Australia and South Africa, but they struggle in the subcontinent. Unlike Waqar Younis and You, who were actually better in the subcontinent than outside. What are they missing?
The simple answer is: reverse swing. Either they don't practise with the old ball or they don't have confidence in it.
It's not rocket science. You take a ball, rough it up on one side on concrete, put it in your bag, and practise with it every day. It has got nothing to do with your wrist or your action. The ball will go with the shine. Simple as that, but you have to master it. It's things that you find difficult as a bowler in matches that you have to practise more. Some people don't, they just think line and length and forget about other things. I think that is where they are lacking.
You have said earlier that the most important thing about reverse swing is how you look after the ball. What are the secrets of looking after the ball?
I am not giving that away so easily. Not in a freebie interview!
Everyone in our team knew what we had to do. And we even had to change Saqlain Mushtaq's action. He used to rub the ball in a manner that used to soften the rough side. As a captain, I had to tell him, "Saqlain don't do that." In team meetings we used to go after him.
When the coaches come to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, they have meetings for two hours. They should know that the attention span in our part of the world is 14 minutes. If you get into the 15th minute, they will forget what you told them in the first 14
That much detail?
That much detail. Even if while throwing the ball from the outfield, if the rough side comes in touch with the grass, it will become soft. Sometimes bowlers used to stop the ball played back at them with their foot. If the boot spikes hit the rough side, it was Christmas. If it didn't, you shone the ball and moved on.
We just took our time. It all depended on the wicket, the weather, the dryness of the outfield. If the wicket is dead and the square grassy, it's not going to happen. If one drop of sweat falls on it, the reverse swing won't happen.
And now with this rule to change the ball after 34 overs, you have taken reverse swing out of the one-day equation.
Once you have seen talent in a young fast bowler, how do you go about nurturing it?
If I see an exceptionally good fast bowler, I would pick him right away. Batsmen probably need more time and experience to mature, but if bowlers have pace, swing, and they are physically and mentally strong, just back them and play them. I picked Aamer Nazir, Saqlain Mushtaq, I picked Shoaib Malik out of the blue in Sharjah 1997. I saw him play one game for PIA and I fought for him and he was on the touring team.
Mohammad Aamer is being rated highly by experts in Pakistan. He is only 16: would you pick him pick right away?
Is he that good?
He is quite talented.
Waqar has spoken how half of his wickets were thanks to you. Can you elaborate on that and the partnership?
We had a love-hate relationship when we were playing. We used to hate each other's guts at times. There was always competition on the field. If he was taking wickets, I wanted to take more. Not that he shouldn't take wickets, just that I should take more than him. In the end Pakistan benefited from that healthy competition.
Were there ever times with the two of you when you felt a particular batsman was taking runs off you, and you'd tell the other to somehow get him out?
It never happened with us. When we were at our peak, I don't think we ever faced such a situation. We could take on anyone and everyone.
How do you fight the chucking problem?
It's a difficult question made even more difficult. The rules have been mended or bended or whatever, for the sake of I don't know who. The thing is simple: if somebody chucks, he chucks; if somebody doesn't chuck, he doesn't chuck. There shouldn't be any 15-degree rule. It's just making things complicated.
Do you think chucking actually gives a bowler an unfair advantage?
It does, it definitely does. I have tried, when I was playing, to chuck, but I couldn't. It's difficult to chuck - it's an art. But it does give an unfair advantage.
What do you think the essential qualities for a good Pakistan captain are?
With any cricket team in the world, you pick the XI first, and then the captain. As simple as that.
Selection in Pakistan is highly politicised. Things work differently here, don't they?
Of course they do. Fourteen boys went to the Kitply Cup; they won the tournament, but two have been dropped. They didn't even play and are dropped. What they must be going through, I can only imagine.
That's where Shoaib Malik has to be strong. As a leader and as a player he has to be positive. In the beginning I thought he had the skills; now I have my doubts. Against Zimbabwe he bowled ten overs in almost every match, against Bangladesh he bowled a little less. But in big matches he is not bowling. Do you think nobody notices? People do. Most of all, players notice how the leader is doing.
You had a lot of difficult players to handle when you were captain?
Man management is very important. You can't just become a captain and have a group of your own. That's the worst thing you can do as a captain. In cricket teams you have to be friendly with everyone. I had Aamer Sohail, Waqar Younis, Javed Miandad, Ramiz Raja, Saleem Malik, Ijaz Ahmed - they were all different characters, they were all difficult, but they were all match-winners. I learned to listen to them and back them up when they were not doing well. I knew as a captain that when they came back to form they would win me a match.
Shoaib Malik has to learn that. [Abdur] Rauf gets three wickets in one match, but doesn't get to play in the next. This is the captain's fault, not the selectors'. Now he says the XI is given by selectors, but I know that in Pakistan if you are a strong captain there is no way the selectors can do that to you. We have all been through this: me, Inzamam, Imran [Khan], Miandad, we all did that but we always had our XIs. Maybe in the 14-15 you can have a compromise...
The thing is simple: if somebody chucks, he chucks; if somebody doesn't chuck, he doesn't chuck. There shouldn't be any 15-degree rule. It's just making things complicated
Who do you think has been Pakistan's best captain?
Of course, Imran was the best ever. He led from the front, with the bat, with the ball. Under pressure he went in at No. 3 in the 1992 World Cup. No other captain from India or Pakistan could ever have done it. I couldn't have done such a brave thing, because I'd think: what if I failed? He was never scared.
In the mid-nineties Pakistan had so much talent that they could have dominated world cricket like Australia have been doing. Were politics and infighting to blame?
Politics is very much there. Infighting is less between the boys, but yes it is there. But if the cricket board is consistent, then we can talk. Today there is somebody running Pakistan, tomorrow there will be somebody else. With cricket boards, teams change, captains change, coaches change, team managements change. Everybody has to become a politician then.
What were the unique problems you faced as a bowler-captain?
A bowler-captain, in my book, is always a better captain. A keeper-captain, if he is exceptional, can be at par with a bowler-captain. Because you have to know the bowler's psyche. Some captains - I am not naming any - say that you have got a wicket with an inswinger; why don't you bowl a similar ball every time? If I could bowl every ball like that, then am I mad to not bowl it every ball?
One bowler can bowl only a six-over spell, if you bowl him for seven, he is finished for the day. He has to bowl six only. Maybe get him just before lunch for two-three overs. You have to know your bowlers completely, and that a bowler-captain can do better.
But if you are bowling a spell, isn't it difficult for you to think of field placings, strategy, etc, when actually you want to rest a bit between overs?
You get used to that. It's just a habit. Initially you think, 'I have to think of my bowling, there is a match tomorrow, the team has to be selected, the coach has to be spoken to, players have to be spoken to, there's a team meeting, media has to be spoken to.' But you get used to it.
Who was the toughest batsman to bowl to, for you?
Sunil Gavaskar. I only got him twice in one-day matches. I played four Tests against him - he never gave me his wicket. I remember bowling him reverse swing, round-the-wicket stuff, bouncers, in the Chennai Test of 1987, but he swayed away easily, seeing the ball into the keeper's gloves. And that was towards the end of his career.
Martin Crowe. Sachin [Tendulkar] - I didn't play against him in Tests for ten years [from 1989 to 1999], so it is very difficult to rate him in that period, when we were at our peak. No doubt he was a great batsman. Brain Lara. Another batsman I hated to bowl to was Mark Waugh. In ODIs, Adam Gilchrist, Sanath Jayasuriya, Aravinda De Silva.
Which were your favourite wickets?
Of course, Ian Botham in the 1992 World Cup final. He still doesn't admit he edged it. He is a very good friend of mine now, and he still says he didn't nick it. Allan Lamb in the same game was special too.
Test matches, I don't remember many. There were so many.
How did your run-up develop, and the whippy action?
It was natural. Run-up I shortened in 1987 with the help of Imran. He helped me a lot. I had an angle too, but I thought I wasn't losing on pace, running in straight, so why run in from the side?
Didn't coaches interfere with your approach?
Imran Khan was there, what can a coach do? Is a coach mad to be speaking in front of Imran?
Do you think there is a problem of over-coaching in today's cricket?
It has become a bit too complicated. Bowling coach, batting coach, fielding coach... At this level you don't need a coach. How will you coach [Mohammad] Yousuf? You can't correct his back-lift. You can just give him confidence.
We have to go by culture. When the coaches come to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, they make sure they have meetings for two hours. They should know that the attention span in our part of the world is 14 minutes. If you get into the 15th minute, they will forget what you told them in the first 14. I went through this as a captain, and I realised that the shorter the meeting, and the more to the point it is, it stays in their minds for longer. Coaches now keep talking, players go to sleep. Doesn't matter how experienced or how alert, inside they are asleep.
What was the lowest moment in your career?
Quite a few. The match-fixing allegations, losing the World Cup final in 1999. Losing wasn't so bad, but when we came back to Pakistan, I got called by the National Accountability Bureau. They kept me in Islamabad and questioned me day in and day out. Before that the prime minister, the chief minister of Punjab, used to call me every day. Suddenly, after we lost they all disappeared. And people started saying the match was fixed. It's hilarious that people can still think that the World Cup final was fixed. That much pride - the money comes afterwards - you can't feel anywhere else. There is no comparison. I eventually learned that the only way to answer it was with performances.
How long did it affect you mentally?
For a long time. Had I not gone through that stage I would have probably got 500 wickets in Test cricket [he ended with 414]. General Tauqir Zia asked me to retire in 2000 or they would drop me. I have been through a lot. Cricket has been through a lot.
How did you deal with it on the field?
Well, when I was on the field I shut it out. Just go, perform, enjoy the game, back the boys, enjoy their company. If you look at the records, we were the most successful side Pakistan ever had.