Wasim Akram, the ace left-arm pacer wrote his memoir Sultan with the famous cricket journalist Gideon Haigh, and every chapter of the book is prefaced by a comment from a famous cricketer from around the world. Australian cricketer Justin Langer confesses that “Facing Wasim was like batting in a fishing net. You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t score. Basically, it was a nightmare.”
A memoir written with a degree of honesty and courage, this book comes across as an account that tries more to delineate the flaws of its protagonist than to portray him as a larger than life figure. The lucid prose and a coherent narrative makes the memoir an interesting read for both casual and traditional cricket lovers.
A humble start
An 18-year-old young man from Mozang, a suburban locality of Lahore, was sleeping on a wooden charpoy with his grandmother when he was selected to represent his country. With no link to the top and with no cricket in his blood, he made his way from the streets of his village to the Test team in a couple of years. “Patronage”, says Akram, has always mattered in Pakistani cricket, but here was a teenager who had inherited nothing but the dreams of playing for his country of one day.
Akram humanises the account by detailing the vicissitudes in his life as he continued with his cricket despite the marriage of his parents falling apart. Living with his mother in Mozang, he recalls an incident when he was playing in a street and a local cricketer spotted him and took him to play at a cricket club. “I would bowl, and bowl, and bowl – basically until there was nobody left to bowl to, which might be four hours,” recalls Akram in his book.
After being chosen for his first tour to New Zealand, he had no idea whether he would have to pay for the tour, or get paid for it. Senior cricketer Javed Miandad came to his rescue and told him that life had changed for him – he was a professional cricketer now. Little did Akram know then that his journey in international cricket would be littered by controversies, both with his own teammates and others.
Akram does not shy away from recording the hardships inflicted on him by his fellow teammates. On his first tour he recalls Saleem Malik, then an established player and his roommate, being negative, selfish, and treating him like a menial. The anxieties of a vulnerable and talented cricketer in the early years of his career are starkly visible throughout the book.
Wasim Akram was a novice then in search of a guide, a mentor, and a confidant. Imran Khan, who had just made a comeback after regaining his fitness, recalled meeting him for the first time at the lounge of the Sydney airport. “I don’t remember anyone, but with Imran you do always, so overwhelming is his presence, his beauty. In 1985, he looked like a god: the face, the hair, the physique. I simply could not take my eyes off him. And for a young fast bowler, this was a very good thing.”
That was the start of a life-long camaraderie during which Khan taught Akram the greatest lessons of his cricketing career. The art of reverse swing – the swing an old ball develops towards the shiny side rather than away from it – would end up becoming Akram’s deadly weapon on the pitch. Akram was quite smitten by Khan and in the 1992 World Cup when they lifted the trophy, he supported his captain’s controversial winning speech, in which, other players alleged, Imran Khan attributed the win entirely to himself.
Beneath the veneer of a successful cricketer there are glimpses of the utterly broken person that Wasim Akram became. His addiction to cocaine during the later part of his career got the better of him. His wife Huma, who later died of a cardiac arrest, was the anchor that kept Akram grounded and stable during the tumultuous years in which he was accused of match fixing and drug abuse.
During his time as the captain of the Pakistan team, Akram made quite a few allegations against teammates Waqar Younis and Javed Miandad – of boycotting him and not abiding by his instructions. He had to fine them repeatedly for turning up late for the bus that ferried the team to the stadium from the hotel.
Akram comes across as defiant and reticent in the face of the controversy that arose in England when Pakistan’s fast bowlers were accused of tampering with the ball to generate their magical reverse swing. Had the swing been the innovation of English players, Akram argues, it would have been hailed as a remarkable feature. “The general English Paranoia about reverse swing was such that they showed no curiosity about the skill involved. They didn’t observe for instance how we only ever held the ball in our fingers but never in the palm. They did not grasp how quickly the side of a ball could deteriorate if you neglected it. They simply derided us as ‘cheating Pakis’.”
Sultan tells the story of one of the greatest left-arm fast bowlers cricket has had. From the streets of Lahore, the saga of Wasim Akram’s meteoric rise in international cricket and subsequent fall when he was embroiled in controversies of match-fixing and ball-tampering is told with striking honesty and wit. Akram does not mince his words and answers all the questions that have been asked of him. He writers evocatively of life before and after the death of his first wife Huma, while narrating the tale of his romance with Shaneira, who later become his second wife, with great emotion and humour.
Reading Sultan is like witnessing the highlights of world cricket through Wasim Akram’s eyes from the 1990s till the end of his career. This makes this memoir a trip down memory lane for all cricket enthusiasts of the subcontinent and the world.
Sultan: A Memoir, Wasim Akram with Gideon Haigh, HarperCollins.