September 22, 2013

The Phenom

"Are you crazy?" inquired the twenty year old woman I had just met at a friend's birthday bash. I had been speaking to a childhood buddy on the phone, and as with any conversation we have, the topic of Wasim came up. His war cry of Wasim is the best bowler ever was met by my Not even in the top five put-down. This is the most difficult, banging-my-head-on-a-wall argument I can have with my friends, all of whom consistently rate Wasim as the best fast bowler of all time.

Firstly, and this is something they refuse to acknowledge, I loved Wasim Akram's bowling and respect how he, along with Waqar, brought reverse swing to the center-stage of the world. It was a wonderful advert for fast bowling which was being criticized for becoming too ruthless and malicious. Even though Sarfaraz and Imran, not to mention Malcolm Marshall, had been proponents of reverse swing, the Ws really brought it to the forefront. Imran's bowling went on a decline (not in terms of stats, but amount of bowling) after his injury in the mid-80s, and Marshall had too many other tricks up his sleeve to really zero in on reverse swing. And so it was Wasim-Waqar who cultivated the fine art. 

With Lancashire, 1990
In the early 90s, Wasim was unstoppable (From 1990-94, he picked up 150 wickets @ 19.52 and SR of 44.7). He was brilliant in every way possible, swinging the ball left, right, center at all stages of the day, on all sorts of pitches. Waqar was even more devastating during this phase, primarily due to his great pace, and ridiculously unplayable yorkers (Picking up 184 wickets @ 18.49 and SR of 35.3!!). After the two had lost some of their pace, however, Wasim emerged as the more versatile of the two, and even though his stats declined after this period, they were still outstanding. It was also the first period of great turmoil in Pakistan cricket with respect to match fixing, and the politics of the side took a heavy toll on his motivation levels. 

My principal problem with rating Wasim as the greatest fast bowler comes, as might be expected, from his peers of all eras. He keeps company with the following set of people -

Windies: Marshall, Curtly Ambrose, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Courtney Walsh
Australia: Dennis Lillee, Glenn McGrath, Alan Davidson, Ray Lindwall
England: Sydney Barnes, Fred Trueman, Harold Larwood
South Africa: Allan Donald, Dale Steyn, Shaun Pollock, Neil Adcock, Mike Procter
New Zealand: Richard Hadlee

Not to mention Imran Khan himself. Some of them have better stats than Wasim does. Four of them, Marshall, McGrath, Garner and Ambrose (Hadlee and Donald come close as well) have near perfect records everywhere in the world. Waqar himself out-bowled his partner during their prime years. Imran Khan's peak, though short, was breath-taking. Sydney Barnes, the fast-medium spinner, is considered by many to be the greatest bowler of all time with his wide range of skill set. In terms of strike rate and average both, Wasim lags behind most of these bowlers. But... I am well aware that statistics are the guiding light of only a blind man, and they cannot bring to words the phenom the left armer was. 

Wasim is, without much doubt, the greatest left-arm pacer, though Alan Davidson would cough a bit at that. He, more than anybody including Imran and Waqar, symbolized what an art form bowling can be, how a ball can be made to sing, and how a pacer can dominate without resorting to cruder tactics. The beautiful incoming swerve on the late out-swinging delivery left one gaping for a second. Imagine what the batsmen felt. Then there was the in-swingers which came out of nowhere to trap an unsuspecting willow-holder plumb in front of the stumps. For all this, I salute Wasim Akram, and if it was a question of just aesthetics, he would perhaps be my number one too. 

But... it is not. Let us go deeper into the numbers. Of Wasim's 414 test wickets, 35% came from tail-enders (batsmen from 7-11). That is much higher than anybody else on the above list. Obviously, the genius of Wasim was impossible to decipher for men not skilled with the bat, and he would clean up the tail quickly. Also, his record around the world is uneven, and not truly consistent as the names mentioned above. As mentioned above, after his peak, his record becomes less-than-great. 

Lest the reader may think of me as being too harsh, I have a few points in his favor as well. I am absolutely certain that had Wasim had better catching support in his career, his stats would have been better. Second, I am absolutely certain that if the Pakistan dressing room was a calmer and more united place than it was in the 90s, Wasim would have done better. Lastly, I also think, but on this I am far less certain, that the umpiring of the day was just not up to speed with Wasim's talents, and a lot of LBWs were not given to him which would have given to a right handed swing bowler. 

All in all, I rank Marshall, McGrath, Ambrose, Barnes, and Lillee ahead of Wasim, with Hadlee, Garner and Trueman on an equal footing with him. Curse me if you like. 

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