A quick glance at Wasim Akram’s international career statistics tells you all about his greatness on the pitch. In 104 Tests, he took 414 wickets at an average of 23.62 and scored 2,898 runs (which included a career best score of 257 not out), whereas in 356 one-day internationals (ODIs), he grabbed 502 wickets at an average of 23.53 and scored 3,717 runs.
Sultan: A Memoir
Such numbers firmly establish Akram as not only Pakistan’s finest exponent of fast bowling but also as one of the most talented all-rounders that country has ever produced. And yet, controversies never seemed to leave his side; he was accused of ball tampering in the early part of his career and was embroiled in a match-fixing scandal during the late 1990s.
“Akram came to embody the unmatchable genius of the Pakistani cricketer, as well as the style with which he played. Instead, he ended up half-guilty, half-innocent of corruption, embodying also the dark failings of the country’s cricket,” wrote Osman Samiuddin in The Unquiet Ones, his groundbreaking chronicle of Pakistan cricket. Twenty years after his retirement, it was Akram’s desire to exorcise himself of these failings that resulted in Sultan: A Memoir, co-written with veteran Australian journalist Gideon Haigh.
The book starts off with Akram talking about his humble beginnings growing up in a Lahore suburb and the lack of lineage, which plays an important role in catching the attention of selectors in Pakistani cricket. He finally gets a break when a local club cricketer noticed him playing for his gully cricket (street cricket) team, and his streak of good luck continues as he makes it through several rounds of national-level training camps, where he receives coaching in aspects such as bowling action and run-up for the first time in his life. As chance would have it, he impresses star Pakistani batter (and then captain) Javed Miandad while bowling to him during one such camp and before he knows, he is playing his ODI game for Pakistan in 1984.
The influence of Imran Khan looms large at different points of the book: be it the clout he wields over the Pakistani cricketing establishment as captain or his tutelage of Akram by adopting him as his “project”. From him, Akram learns how to attack relentlessly through fast bowling as well as using variations like yorkers and the mostly misunderstood art of “reverse swing”.
Khan was also instrumental in ensuring that Akram played club cricket in England, with a view to learning “English conditions” and living independently—skills that would come in handy when he signed up to play for the Lancashire county cricket club in the latter half of the 1980s.
Pakistan’s victorious campaign in the 1992 ODI World Cup (hosted by Australia and New Zealand) gets an entire chapter, which is no surprise given the magnitude of the accomplishment. Akram himself admits that though the national side arrived Down Under looking out of sorts, the belief that Imran Khan infused in his team ensured that they never lost hope. With some help from Lady Luck, Pakistan won all its must-win encounters and then, in the final at Melbourne, it was Akram’s match-winning performance (a quickfire 33 runs and 3/49) that crowned the team world champions.
The merits of having bowlers as captains has been a matter of constant debate in cricketing circles, but Wasim Akram arguably counts among the few success stories. Despite faltering big time in his first stint as Pakistan’s skipper—Akram admits he tried too hard to be like Imran Khan without his “aura and background”—he fares much better the second time around despite allegations of match-fixing casting a dark shadow on the team’s on-field achievements.
These allegations eventually led to his suspension from the national team altogether, but following a public inquiry (resulting in the Justice Qayyum report) which revealed the extent of misconduct on part of players across borders, Akram was reinstated at the helm once again—just before Pakistan’s historic tour to India in 1999.
Despite political opposition in India at the time (especially from the right-wing Shiv Sena), that Test series witnessed cricketing brilliance on the pitch and great camaraderie among the players off it. Even all these years later, the one scene that remains etched in cricketing memory is the standing ovation that the Chennai crowd gave the Pakistan side right after having witnessed the home team lose the first Test narrowly by 12 runs (India subsequently squared the series 1-1 in Delhi courtesy Anil Kumble’s unforgettable 10-wicket haul in the final innings).
Considering the current political climate that governs relations between the two neighbours, one can sense both love and longing when Akram says: “For all their occasional excesses, there is simply no cricket public like India’s, and no cricket relationship like Pakistan’s with India.”
Leading from the front
In a bid to emulate Imran Khan’s feat, Akram also led from the front in the 1999 World Cup where Pakistan began convincingly, then stumbled, before finding its feet to reach the final, only to be beaten by Australia in what remains the most one-sided summit clash in the tournament’s history till date. With the match-fixing saga running in the background, the debilitating defeat raised suspicions back home in Pakistan yet again, which Akram calls out as “chronic national immaturity—the brittle Pakistani arrogance that expects victory and can only explain defeat by claiming a conspiracy.”
As the country again undergoes another political churn when army chief Pervez Musharraf takes charge following a military coup, Akram finds himself in the twilight of his career. Despite good performances, he recalls being told at one point by the then PCB chair that he was “too old”. Injuries eventually begin to take their toll on him and following Pakistan’s disastrous 2003 World Cup campaign, he calls it quits.
One would think that given his achievements over two decades, Akram would have deserved a grand farewell. Except his exit was wholly unspectacular and without ceremony: “In Pakistan, the game tends to retire you rather than the other way around,” he laments. As it turned out, the lack of any process whatsoever in preparing Akram for life after retirement had disastrous consequences.
As expected, Akram attempts to tell his side of the story on the two major scandals that tarnished his reputation at the time: ball-tampering and match-fixing. In the case of the former, he minces no words while calling out the hypocrisy and implied racism of the English players as well as the press who found it convenient to allege wrongdoing every time an opponent—especially a Pakistani one—achieved success using the technique of reverse swing.
One instance that highlights the paranoia was a near-slanderous article written by English batter Allan Lamb in a British tabloid, which provoked a sharp rejoinder in the form of an open letter from Akram and fellow fast bowling great Waqar Younis.
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The match-fixing allegations, on the other hand, consume significant portions of this book, rearing their ugly head every now and then. He describes the “sense of unease and mutual suspicion” that vitiated the atmosphere of the dressing room, so much so that he admits being “disgusted” by his “teammates bent on undermining each other”.
In one chapter towards the end (“General Disarray”), he admits to sitting down with the Justice Qayyum report for the first time only while writing this book. He then proceeds to poke holes in the report’s findings, labelling it “schizophrenic” and calls one of the public hearings a “pointless exercise that did nothing but damage to innocent reputations”.
Drug addiction issues
And then we come to the penultimate chapter (“Battling My Demons”), which contains the most explosive and hitherto unknown detail of Akram’s life: his struggles with drug addiction following retirement, which he attributes to the “all-consuming, seductive and corrupting” culture of fame in South Asia. It took a tragedy—the death of his first wife Huma—to finally cure him of his dependence on cocaine, which also drove him to become a better parent.
Wasim Akram has a bit of a reputation as a storyteller and it comes across in the numerous anecdotes peppered throughout the book. Be it his attempts to assimilate himself by overcoming the culture shock he experiences in Britain during his Lancashire stint, the electrifying highs as well as plummeting lows of Pakistan cricket that reflect the unpredictable character of the nation, or talking about the important women of his life who shaped him—Akram always comes across as observant, empathetic, and honest to a fault.
Credit must go to Gideon Haigh for successfully weaving all these distinct threads of Sultan so deftly that it remains an effortless read throughout. The only count where the book might be found wanting is a seeming lack of ambition: one is left feeling that it aims solely to be an earnest autobiographical account and nothing more, which stops it from soaring to the level where great sports literature belongs.
This minor quibble aside, Wasim Akram’s memoir is a worthy addition to the bookshelf of cricket aficionados. If there was ever a case to be made for setting the record straight, this would very well be it.