In Waz we trust: Akram celebrates a wicket with his Smethwick team-mates
In Waz we trust: Akram celebrates a wicket with his Smethwick team-mates
Twenty-three years ago, caught in the turmoil of the match-fixing saga, the Pakistani legend turned out for Smethwick CC
One sweltering Sunday morning in June 1999 at Smethwick CC, a couple of miles west of Birmingham city centre, the members started funnelling into the pavilion for a one-off happenstance in the history of English club cricket. It was the toss for the World Cup final, Australia versus Pakistan, and uniquely, both captains had a connection to the club: Steve Waugh had played three games for them in 1988, scoring 2, 124 and 135 not out, while Wasim Akram had been signed in December and was due to get going once the World Cup was over.
Or rather, he had agreed to play, with no written contract signed and the fees to be covered by a local garden-furniture magnate of Kenyan extraction, Abid Mir, who had apparently committed to a £30,000 investment. Smethwick also engaged the former Warwickshire cult player Asif Din as captain, who earlier that year gave an interview to the local Sunday Mercury that bore the headline "Akram can do a job for Smethwick - old pal Asif." You reckon?
The early announcement had certainly afforded local players plenty of time to consider their options, which were: (a) sign for another club in a different division, (b) pivot to Saturday-afternoon golf, (c) consult the fixtures and book a judiciously timed holiday, (d) purchase a chest guard, (e) write a will, or (f) as West Bromwich Dartmouth captain Richard Cox did, pick Graham Gooch's brain on a coaching course, go through visualisation exercises, have a bowling machine replicate the Wasim wizardry, and join the Warwickshire squad for routine pre-season vision tests. Still, in the Birmingham League batters' favour, YouTube didn't yet exist, so there were no "Wasim Pace God: Top 10 Toe and Head Crusher" videos to look at.
It was an astonishing coup, and the club, as one might expect, was humming with anticipation. Smethwick had secured the services of an A-plus cricketer, elite of the elite, at the time the only man with 300 wickets in both Tests and ODIs, one of eight players to make both Wisden and ESPNcricinfo All-Time XIs (along with Jack Hobbs, the Don, Sachin, Viv, Garry, Shane and Malcolm), and they wouldn't have to pay a penny for it. What could possibly go wrong?
Akram wasn't the first bona fide superstar bowler to have been engaged by Smethwick either. Having started out at the club as a teenager, local-born SF Barnes returned home as pro in 1936, aged 64, and took 70 wickets, the terms of his contract stating solely that he received half the gate money. Certainly nearer the peak of his considerable powers in 1999 than SF had been 63 years earlier, Akram recalls being paid £2000 per game, "which was a lot of money. More than I got for playing a Test match, and I was one of the top players in the world then." Indeed he was, a high-grade weapon about to be inserted into the ancient rivalries of the country's oldest league, inspiring both team-mates and trepidation, perhaps even a first Smethwick title since 1968. That was the dream, although Wazball wouldn't quite pan out that way.
The deal had been set up by a silver-tongued former Smethwick junior, Raja Khan, who worked in education, as an agent and much else besides. Thanks to a hook-up with PCB chief executive Majid Khan on a school cricket tour he organised in 1995, he became, in his own words, an "informal media officer, or ad hoc liaison officer" for Pakistan's 1996 trip to England. This led to similar roles at tournaments in Toronto, Kenya, Dubai and the World Cup.
The eagle has landed: a news story captures some of the excitement around the coming of Akram
© Birmingham Post
The eagle has landed: a news story captures some of the excitement around the coming of Akram © Birmingham Post
Late one night the previous summer, Raja read on the teletext news service Ceefax at home in Small Heath that Lancashire captain Akram's benefit year would be his tenth and last at the county, and he would step down to stay fresh for the last few years of his international career, World Cup included. Wheels were set in motion, with Raja taking a Smethwick official to Trent Bridge in September to meet Wasim, who by then had pouched two valedictory one-day trophies with Lancs. Once the financing had been agreed, with A Mir & Co receiving prominent sponsorship, the deal was announced.
The plan was that Wasim would play whenever permitted by his commentary commitments for Channel 4, who also commissioned a documentary about the stint, When Wasim Came to Smethwick, almost certainly a unique occurrence for an English club pro's season. And in another slightly surreal turn, Raja arranged for the full Pakistan squad to play a charity game cum World Cup warm-up against Smethwick 1st XI in early May for victims of the ongoing war in Kosovo, one of the more unusual friendlies in the club's history. "It was Shoaib Akhtar, Wasim, Waqar Younis: the full cast, basically, and an absolute minefield of a wicket," recalls Smethwick opener Steve McDonald. "It shouldn't have been played, really. It was a farce."
Smethwick wasn't Wasim's first spell of English league cricket. In 1986 he had arrived as a teenager - one with 28 wickets at 24.57 from eight Tests - to play in the Tyneside Senior League, for Burnopfield, just outside Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on £50 a week. "Imran Khan organised for me to go there," he recalls, "because in 1987 Pakistan was touring England, so he said, 'Why don't you go and play league cricket?' I left Pakistan with my sunglasses on and landed in London for the first time at four o'clock in the afternoon in April and it was pitch black. That was the first shock."
He lived in a one-bedroom riverside flat in Newcastle for the duration. "I enjoyed it," he says. "The club were very helpful. It was boring for the first two or three weeks because practice was only once a week and it always rained. But I performed well. I got my first hundred, first eight-for and first hat-trick. They were uncovered wickets, sometimes muddy, and I learned to bowl cutters. The boundary was 25 or 30 metres on one side. Wasim Raja was playing in the league and I roomed up with Mohsin Kamal. It was a very pleasant experience."
Akram was a very different animal back then from the 33-year-old legend who arrived 15 minutes late for his Birmingham League debut, against West Bromwich Dartmouth, in a cobalt-blue Porsche loaned him by Abid Mir, having sped 130 miles up from Taunton after filming a spot for Channel 4 that morning. The anticipated four-figure crowd had not materialised - perhaps because the large local Pakistani community had been turned off by the humiliation at Lord's, perhaps because of the £3 admission fee - although there was a media scrum outside the ground, which Akram pushed regally through, his kit carried by a flunky. It was a league pro's grand entrance bested only by Vivian Richards landing on a Lancashire outfield in a helicopter 12 years earlier.
What if god was one of us: Akram sits with members of Smethwick CC at a game
© Birmingham Post
What if god was one of us: Akram sits with members of Smethwick CC at a game © Birmingham Post
With his star man somewhere on the M5, Asif Din had little option but to bat upon winning the toss. While openers McDonald and Sohail Mohammad, son of Pakistan legend Mushtaq, were quietly going about their business, Wasim met his new team-mates, a number of whom had played or would go on to play professional cricket: Abdul Hafeez and Maneer Mirza, who each had a smattering of games for Worcestershire; Kasir Shah, who did likewise at Derbyshire; and Kadeer and Kabir Ali, 16 and 18 years old, brother and cousin of Moeen, who briefly appears in the C4 documentary, walking about as his father, Munir, and uncle Shabbir build the fabled backyard net that set him on his way.
Akram's entrance at 129 for 3 was a curious mixture of the big-time and the village: on the one hand, he was doubtless the first Birmingham League batter ever accompanied to the middle by a documentary crew and gaggle of press photographers; on the other, he was sporting a gaudy A Mir & Co-branded cap and shirt, which wicketkeeper Adam Binks recalls being handed out of a bin bag before the game. "Terrible quality, no club crest, just the yellow and purple Mir logo, which weren't even club colours. I never wore mine, and they were binned off pretty quickly." Never one to dally too long in the lower gears, Akram slog-swept a six over the pakora stall off Worcestershire's Matt Rawnsley, crunched another four, and was then castled by the part-time offies of Warwickshire's Mark Wagh for an eight-ball 11 as Smethwick closed on 247 for 9 from their 60 overs.
During the interval he held a press conference on the outfield, most of the questions concerning Pakistan's nine-wicket trouncing at Lord's six days earlier, defeated with 35 overs unbowled. The new Smethwick pro was asked about rumours of the players partying the night before the final, and even whether the game had been fixed, a reminder that the Black Country would provide no escape from the wider cricketing world. By then, the Qayyum Commission had been running for nine months, a government-backed attempt to get to the bottom of the corruption and match-fixing rumours that had bedevilled the Pakistan team since Imran Khan's retirement. Saleem Malik was at the centre of allegations, but Akram, Ijaz Ahmed and a strong support cast were all heavily implicated. These were especially chaotic times in Pakistani cricket, with 13 captaincy changes in the four and a half years prior to the commission. Akram had stepped down in early 1998, playing under Aamer Sohail in South Africa and Rashid Latif in Zimbabwe before his final Lancashire summer.
Inside a week after the commission opened in September 1998, Akram announced his shock retirement from international cricket. He soon unretired, however, playing in back-to-back 1-0 home Test series defeats: the first to Australia under Sohail, during which Latif presented secret tape recordings to the commission; the second to Zimbabwe under Moin Khan, during which Sohail gave explosive testimony, much of it fingering Akram, who was nevertheless restored to the captaincy for the two-Test trip to India, winning the Chennai epic by 12 runs before losing in Delhi, where Anil Kumble took all ten. He stayed on as captain for the Asian Test Championship, where there was another away win against India, followed by hat-tricks in consecutive games against Sri Lanka. Pakistan then won an ODI quadrangular in Sharjah - coach Javed Miandad stepping down afterwards, citing five unnamed players who had fixed a defeat to India - before a World Cup that brought four straight wins, a shock defeat to Bangladesh, losses to South Africa and India in the Super Sixes, the semi-final roasting of New Zealand, and that capitulation in the final, which had the effigy-makers of Lahore and Karachi digging out the glue and paraffin. "Anger over the World Cup final had been intense," writes Osman Samiuddin in The Unquiet Ones, his history of Pakistan cricket, "the loss a vent for an entire population's building fury over six years of corruption paranoia."
Man at work: Akram was quick quick, as an opponent that season put it
© Birmingham Post
Man at work: Akram was quick quick, as an opponent that season put it © Birmingham Post
And so Akram was being asked about it all on the Smethwick outfield while his team-mates enjoyed a sandwich and cup of tea, maybe a smoke, and tried to figure out how they'd knock over West Bromwich. Plan A, presumably, involved the new lad from Lahore. However, the league was a high standard - between 1980 and 1999, its clubs would win nine National Club Championships, along with four final losses - and Akram wasn't necessarily going to have everything his own way. "Those were tough cricketers," he recalls. "I was surprised but in a good way. None of them backed down."
And then, finally, it was show time: that short-stepping sharp sprint through the crease, the arm coming over as quick and savage as a fan's blade, the sorcerer's wrists, the improbable trajectories, the laser-guided hostility. "Good luck, fellas. Get stuck in!"
West Brom would certainly be no pushovers. Taking strike was Wagh, who would retire with 12,455 first-class runs. His opening partner Mike Rindel had played 22 ODIs for South Africa, scoring a hundred against Pakistan, Wasim and Waqar included, in one - a final in Johannesburg, pinpointed by Qayyum as one of eight key suspicious games, before which an irate Latif had the Pakistan team swear on the Koran that they weren't involved in fixing, after Saleem Malik had unilaterally u-turned on strategy at the toss. At No. 4 was Bedfordshire batter Richard Dalton, good enough two years earlier to crash a 59-ball 76 against Derbyshire for Minor Counties, and 69 from 47 against Worcestershire. Nine overs into West Brom's reply, however, they were all back in the shed, courtesy of Akram: one bounced out, the other two comprehensively bowled. "Rindel creamed one through the covers for four off Wasim," recalls McDonald, "cracking shot, and you just saw something switch in [Akram]. He really let the reins off. That little spell was absolutely electric to watch."
By now the Waz pills were starting to kick in (side effects: fantasies of slaughtering 12 teams in a row and romping from eighth to first on the table), and the high would last around an hour and a half, extending into Akram's second spell, when he decided to terminate Rob Fenton's middle-order resistance. This he did by breaking Fenton's toe and then his jaw in a three-ball burst, the latter delivery dislodging two teeth as it came in under the grille and back out above it.
At 59 for 6, with another in hospital and almost 40 overs still to bat, West Brom might have been forgiven for chucking in the towel. However, led by skipper Richard Cox, who dug in for over two and a half hours and 138 balls for 42 not out, taking a pummelling in the process, they survived Akram's third, fourth and fifth spells, escaping with a draw as last man Paul Swainson held firm for the final nine overs. These efforts earned Cox not one but two features in the local press. "Once I got out there it was every bit as difficult as I imagined," he said. "But I refused to be intimidated and I enjoyed the contest."
Richard Cox of West Bromwich Dartmouth spoke to Graham Gooch, did visualisation exercises, and took vision tests with the Warwickshire squad, to prepare for the prospect of facing Akram. And lived to tell the tale
© Birmingham Post
Richard Cox of West Bromwich Dartmouth spoke to Graham Gooch, did visualisation exercises, and took vision tests with the Warwickshire squad, to prepare for the prospect of facing Akram. And lived to tell the tale © Birmingham Post
Akram slipped off home to put the feet up and block out the background noise and drama as best he could, which was easier said than done. Raja, Abid and Asif had all spoken of Smethwick using their icon's status to tap into Birmingham's large South Asian-heritage population, coaching and talent-spotting, but it didn't really take off. Akram still had his house in Altrincham, near Manchester, and still does, but was given use of a smart two-bedroom flat in leafy Edgbaston, his late wife Huma and young son flitting between the two. "In Altrincham you meet Indians and Pakistanis, but not so much," he explains. "Over there [in Birmingham], whenever I went out for a walk with my three-year-old boy, it was just people from my part of the world and I was always being recognised and stopped. That was tough, especially after losing the World Cup the way we did." The Edgbaston flat would be the scene of the next drama.
Akram had been diagnosed with diabetes a couple of years earlier - he ascribed its onset to stress - for which he needed three insulin injections a day. On the eve of the next game, at home to Stratford-upon-Avon, he suffered an attack at 7.30am while alone in the flat. He was discovered curled up on the floor at 10am by Raja, who sensed something amiss when Akram failed to answer the intercom or respond to pebbles being thrown at the window. It was a potentially life-saving intervention. Akram skipped the day's commentary duties, down the road at Edgbaston, but just over 24 hours later was back at Broomfield for his second Birmingham League outing.
Smethwick batted first, McDonald continuing his good form with 86 as the innings closed at 217 for 9. Akram fell for just five to a one-handed, wrong-handed caught-and-bowled from Mike Palmer, who observed, magnanimously: "I had nothing to lose and he was on a hiding to nothing." Kabir Ali then struck early for Smethwick, before Chris Howell and 18-year-old Huw Jones added 130 in a 38-over partnership during which Akram left the field after receiving a call from his brother informing him that, back in Lahore, their father had suffered a heart attack not long after hearing that two bookmaker brothers jailed for his kidnapping in October 1998 had been released (and were due to testify before Justice Qayyum).
Akram spent almost an hour off the pitch, returning to remove Howell in his second spell. Left-arm spinner Firoz Otha snared Jones, who told the Birmingham Post: "His second spell was very, very pacy and it was as hard as I thought it would be. I did ride my luck a bit, but I enjoyed every minute." Otha then whittled through the middle order, including future Warwickshire skipper and grandson of Doctor Who Jim Troughton for a single, but was clattered for a couple of late sixes by David Graham, whose 40 threatened to win it until a trademark Akram yorker detonated his stumps. Stratford finished seven short, eight down, Akram contributing 15-3-40-2 to a second winning draw that put Smethwick into the top half for the first time.
Yet still, like Radiohead playing the Red Lion, he wasn't really feeling it. "Going from international into league cricket - I found it tough," he says. "Maybe 'boring' is not the right word, but I was used to playing with big crowds. League cricket wasn't exciting for me as a player."
Akram walks out to bat in his first game for Smethwick, wearing a hat bearing the logo of his sponsor… and captain-to-be, for a time
© Birmingham Post
Akram walks out to bat in his first game for Smethwick, wearing a hat bearing the logo of his sponsor… and captain-to-be, for a time © Birmingham Post
If not quite Eden Gardens, the following week's trip to Old Hill, a natural amphitheatre with grass banking at both ends, nevertheless drew a crowd of over 2000. Dressing-room areas were cordoned off, and Wasim had his minder hand out pre-autographed photos as he shuffled to their sanctuary. Old Hill were four-time national club champions and had destroyed Smethwick in the first half of the season, winning by 180 runs. It was probably best not to read too much into that, though, given they didn't have one of the greatest pace bowlers who ever drew breath taking the new ball that day, one who had now been revved up by team-mates looking for atonement.
For most of the Old Hill side, it was comfortably the biggest crowd they would ever play in front of, and out into the cauldron strode Harshad Patel and Jonathan Wright, experienced Birmingham League campaigners, who had both been contracted at Worcestershire in the mid-1980s without quite breaking through. "The first thing I noticed, from ball one," says Wright, "was, they were passing the new ball around the team on the bounce. We'd never seen anything like it. The second thing was that Wasim bowled a lot of bouncers early on, obviously trying to intimidate us. I'd faced quick bowling before, but I thought, 'There's no way in a million years I'm going to try and hook this.' Kabir was sharp, but his pace paled in comparison. Wasim was quick quick. He was Pakistan captain, there were a couple of thousand on the ground, and there was no way he was going to treat it like an exhibition game."
"My habit," recalls Akram, chuckling heartily at the memory of team-mates expediting the removal of lacquer from the new cherry, "was to run in every ball, bowl some bouncers, and show those guys that, you know, international level was a little different. But those club players were very gutsy."
Indeed, Patel and Wright took the score to 133 without loss before the ball-husbandry paid off. The latter was "bowled by the best ball I ever faced, which looked like it was going to pitch miles outside leg stump before reversing away and knocking my off stump out". This brought Karl "Careless" Pearson to the wicket, juiced up on "five or six Red Bulls" according to team-mate Sean Lloyd: "He was so hyper by the time he got in that he jumped on the front foot early two balls in a row, before getting the inevitable short one, which he gloved in front of his chin while still on the front foot!" Akram's fracture tally had moved up to three - technically five, as Pearson now had three broken fingers. "I followed him in," says the captain, David Banks. "He couldn't even open the gate to leave the field of play. He just stood there showing me his palm, which had already gone blue. Cheers, Careless!" Still, Banks dug in for 28 not out and Old Hill got up to what seemed a fairly competitive 233 for 6.
After a solid 60-run start from Sohail and McDonald, Akram slid in at number four and finally located his batting mojo, slamming 17 fours and five sixes in a 93-ball 135 not out, as the target was passed with more than ten overs to spare. Amid the carnage, he also claimed a second hand-fracture of the day. "I'd gone for one run off the first eight balls, bowled mainly to Kadeer," Lloyd explains. "At that point Wasim had seen enough of my 'straight breaks' and absolutely smashed a ball to long-on that didn't get above two metres off the floor, bursting through Jamie Parks' hands and going for four. I was so disappointed to have Wasim dropped off my bowling - at least until I saw Parksy's thumb bone sticking out the back of his hand! He was off work for months.
The Alis of Brum: Kabir (far right), who played 15 games for England, was 18 and in the Smethwick side alongside Akram in 1999, as was his cousin Kadeer (centre), brother of Moeen (left), lately of England
© Getty Images
The Alis of Brum: Kabir (far right), who played 15 games for England, was 18 and in the Smethwick side alongside Akram in 1999, as was his cousin Kadeer (centre), brother of Moeen (left), lately of England © Getty Images
"Anyway, the 11 balls after that went for 45. Massive sixes, into the neighbouring houses. Banksy said they had to close the flightpath from Birmingham airport!"
Despite the thumping win, various off-field rumblings and grumblings were coming steadily to the boil at Smethwick. Chairman John Lumb, a no-nonsense Yorkshireman and uncle of England T20 World Cup winner Michael Lumb, was growing increasingly irate with Raja Khan, who had been appointed membership secretary at the start of the season to harness the anticipated bump in interest from the "Wasim factor". Raja had banked some of the subscription money in a personal account and later gave the club a cheque that bounced. There were also questions being raised at committee level - and not being satisfactorily answered by Raja, they felt - about the gate receipts from the Kosovo charity match, when cars had blocked the surrounding streets, leading to several complaints from residents to police - who were none too happy at not being forewarned about such a sizeable event. Akram may have been oblivious to all this, but he was trapped in a Russian doll of cricketing crisis.
The sense that the club was becoming a circus soon afflicted on-field matters when Asif Din, unavailable for the game against Barnt Green due to a family wedding, not only selected the portly fortysomething Abid Mir - for whom he later worked for many years as a general manager - but also made him captain, confirming the view among some Smethwick players that the whole thing was developing into a vanity project for Mir. In the documentary, Munir Ali, sat proudly in an England tracksuit top, asserts politely that he is "a little disappointed with the selection" as the film cuts to Mir waddling haplessly after a skied ball.
"I picked him as captain because I felt he was the one who could get the best out of Wasim," says Din, "and whether or not he was good enough to play was irrelevant. Was Mike Brearley good enough to play for England?" Adam Binks scoffs at the notion: "An international cricketer with hundreds of wickets playing as a league professional would only listen to an ageing businessman with diminished cricketing ability? Really?! Also, although Mir was captain, Sohail Mohammad, the vice-captain, effectively skippered that game."
Nevertheless it was Abid who marched proudly out for the toss against Barnt Green, one of the Birmingham League's new powers, who had become the first club to win the title in their maiden top-fight campaign four years earlier, thanks in large part to Grant Flower's 1024 runs, landing it again in 1997. Punchy as they were, Akram knocked over three in his first spell, before Lyndon Jones with 46 and Matt Dallaway with 53 steadied the ship. Dallaway even pulled the great man for a six to bring up his fifty, while his brother Gary, a last-minute call-up usually found in the seconds and here batting at 11, clipped Akram for four through square leg - which has doubtless prompted a few fraternal clinked glasses over the years. Wasim finished with 17-2-61-5. "There was no one else in the club besides Abid who could have got Wasim to bowl 17 overs," says Asif, in apparent vindication - and the visitors were dismissed for 231. The game was following a similar pattern to the previous week, the main difference being that Akram scored 135 fewer runs.
McDonald's 112 and Sohail's 65 had all but guaranteed victory by the time Akram entered at first drop, ready for more fireworks. "By this stage Roger Hudson was on, part-time slow medium pace," says Barnt Green wicketkeeper Matt Anderson. "I'm standing up. First ball, Wasim punches it really hard to mid-off, no run. Great shot for nothing. Second ball, he starts walking down the pitch during the run-up and gets probably a yard out of his crease when Hudson pulls out. Next ball, he stays in the crease and gets pinned half-forward below the knee roll. Plumb. We all go up and Billy Smith raises the finger. Wasim walks straight down the pitch and says to Billy, 'You can't give me out, the crowd have come to see me,' to which Billy replied something like, 'I don't care, you're out. Now off you go.'"
Akram with Asif Din, the Smethwick captain, formerly of Warwickshire. The following year, both would leave the club for Aston Unity
© Birmingham Post
Akram with Asif Din, the Smethwick captain, formerly of Warwickshire. The following year, both would leave the club for Aston Unity © Birmingham Post
It would be Akram's last act for Smethwick at Broomfield. TV work made him unavailable for the next game, a straightforward home win against Moseley that took the side into fifth place, just three points off second and still with a reasonable chance of the title if they could beat leaders Walsall a fortnight later. The next day Akram learnt that he, Salim Malik and Ijaz Ahmed had been suspended by the PCB with immediate effect, at which point he flew back to Pakistan in an attempt to clear his name (although the Qayyum Report would later admonish him and others for failing to co-operate). Brown stuff now being widely scattered by proverbial fan, it is unlikely Wasim was keeping long-distance tabs on how the Smethwick lads were getting on in their next game at Wolverhampton, where their three-win streak was ended by a losing draw to a side who a month later triumphed at Lord's in the national knockout final.
The wheels were coming off at the club, with the "Kosovo match" against the Pakistanis at the crux of things. John Lumb had been contacted by Smethwick police, who told him the correct licences and safety protocols had not been in place for a ticketed event of that magnitude, and they would not be supporting the club's pending application to renew its liquor licence, a crucial revenue stream, on the basis that management "didn't appear to have control of the club". Then there was the missing gate money from the game, all of which the committee had been told would go through club books, with ticket stubs presented. "They charged £5 admission," recalls then treasurer Gordon McKenzie, "and told us they had taken £9000. I said, 'No, there's more than that. There must have been 3000 people there.' Anyway, I told them, it had to go through club accounts. They opened another account in the name of Smethwick Cricket Club and put the money in there. We didn't see a brass farthing."
It had been almost three months since the game, so the committee sent solicitor's letters to five people they deemed responsible for the missing money, including Raja and Abid. The latter had already been swiftly demoted after the Barnt Green game. When he received the letter a few days later, he promptly pulled his financial backing, citing "a personal attack on my integrity". Having initially protested that he was too busy working with the Pakistan World Cup squad "in an official capacity" to sort out the money, Khan showed club officials a photo of a cheque for £9000 being presented to the Kosovo Relief Fund at the George Dixon School, where he once worked as a PE Teacher. "I told him, 'That proves nothing,'" says McKenzie. Raja lashed out at Lumb in a stormy committee meeting, accusing him of being a racist and lying about the threat to the liquor licence: "Look, tell us: you want us Pakis to leave." Lumb was defended by Asian players in the second team. Raja was removed as membership secretary, then barred from setting foot on club grounds. None of this was in the Wazball brochures.
Rain claimed the game against eventual champions Walsall, by which time Asif Din had stopped playing, apparently over unpaid wages. The club argued that his arrangement was also a private matter with Abid, or at least dependent on moneys that had been verbally promised - though not contractually - and now would not be delivered. Din later sued the club and won, with bailiffs turning up at Smethwick the following Saturday afternoon, attempting to collect £2000.
Like some sort of Kansas plains storm-chaser, Akram returned from Pakistan and Qayyum, coming back to this smaller-scale but no less turbid maelstrom, and on August 14, Pakistan's 52nd birthday, he played away at Moseley in what would be his final outing for the club. Asif Din was there, as were Abid and Raja. With Sohail Mohammad also downing tools in solidarity, Steve McDonald had taken over as captain and compiled an unbeaten 135 as Smethwick finished on 226 for 1. Akram wasn't required to bat, and sat watching in long conversation with his manager, (former) financial backer and (former) captain.
That '80s Show: Akram turned out for Burnopfield in the Tyneside League in 1986, when he was a coltish tearaway
© Burnopfield Cricket Club
That '80s Show: Akram turned out for Burnopfield in the Tyneside League in 1986, when he was a coltish tearaway © Burnopfield Cricket Club
On strike for the first ball of Moseley's reply was Ian Stokes, a nuggety left-hander whose 1236 runs in 1984 remains the highest amateur aggregate in the 133-year history of the Birmingham League. "The first ball was a little loosener," he recalls, "a half-volley which I hit back past him for four. He gave me a bit of a look. A couple of balls later there was another half-volley, which I clipped down to fine leg for one. As he walked past me, he said, 'That's the end of the half-volleys' and for the next three or four overs he absolutely steamed in and peppered me and Stuart Eustace, who was obviously thanking me a lot for it, especially after he was clonked on the helmet."
Akram's second spell brought a blow on the lid for Andy Hughes, prompting the umpires to take everyone off for light. Good light, that is. A late-summer sun dropping over the sightscreen behind the bowler's arm is a nuisance at the best of times and decidedly sub-optimal when that bowler is Wasim Akram. And with that anti-climax, he was done at Smethwick: five games, 438 deliveries, 15 wickets at 13.93 and fourth in the averages, one century, one duck, one documentary, one leave of absence for a judicial hearing, one diabetic attack, and four fractures caused.
If Akram's premature departure wasn't an enormous problem for a Smethwick team locked in mid-table and without title chances or relegation jeopardy, it was something of a calamity for the narrative arc of When Wasim Came to Smethwick. Deprived of a natural denouement, and needing to inject some dramatic thrust, the final third of a film littered with minor factual errors focuses on Raja Khan's frantic efforts to find what's described as a "missing £20,000" - although quite why it is missing when Akram had played five games and his deal was apparently a private arrangement with Abid Mir remains a mystery. In the end, the problem - of the narrative, of the cash - is resolved by an unlikely partnership with South Birmingham College, where Akram was apparently made an "honorary associate lecturer".
Walking off into a bright sunset after an unsatisfactorily concluded match might have been the perfect metaphor for Akram's spell at Smethwick, but his West Midlands story wasn't quite done yet. The roiling waters in which his career sailed back then would once again bring him ashore in the Birmingham League, this time in the second tier. Before then, there was more Pakistani politics to negotiate, more reputational finessing, and of course some stellar performances - a reminder that, even at 33, the autumn having come, this was still an apex predator.
Before that second act, however, Akram would be sacked as Pakistan captain in the wake of a 3-0 defeat in Australia. After a seven-month delay, the Qayyum Report was published in May 2000, fining Wasim US$3750 and recommending he be permanently debarred from the captaincy. "It is only by giving Wasim Akram the benefit of the doubt after Ata-ur-Rehman changed his testimony in suspicious circumstances that he has not been found guilty of match-fixing," the report stated. "He cannot be said to be above suspicion."
Asif Din, who captained Akram during his Smethwick stint, bats on his way to a title-winning hundred for Warwickshire in the 1993 NatWest Bank Trophy final
Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Asif Din, who captained Akram during his Smethwick stint, bats on his way to a title-winning hundred for Warwickshire in the 1993 NatWest Bank Trophy final Rebecca Naden / © PA Photos/Getty Images
Akram was free to continue playing, if under a cloud, and promptly recorded career-best match figures of 11 for 110 in Antigua. Two days later, the deadline for Birmingham League registration, he faxed documents transferring him to Aston Unity, where he would join four old Smethwick team-mates, including Asif Din. At the end of that week, on his 34th birthday, Channel 4 announced they were dropping him from their commentary team. He responded with two more Player-of-the-Match awards in Sri Lanka, making it three Tests in a row. Yep, still got it. Two weeks later he was marking out his run at Bedworth CC, on debut for Aston Unity.
Akram's seven games for that club produced produced 15 wickets at 13, 217 runs at 36, six wins, a draw and promotion, which came at the expense of a Smethwick team decimated not only by the first-team exodus to Unity and elsewhere, but also by the loss of several fringe players frozen out the previous year. They finished rock bottom: four abandonments, 15 defeats, three draws, no wins, and a paltry 52 points. Champions Cannock, abetted by a young South African called Kevin Pietersen, amassed 237.
Smethwick committee members from that period are still stung by the events, several declining to speak about it, even off the record. Others have said it was "the worst thing ever to happen to the club". The most charitable explanation in a whirl of conflicting accounts is that there were two incompatible visions: Raja Khan with buzz, spectacle, dreams, disruption, patter, glamour; the late John Lumb and other committee members with bureaucratic probity, careful husbandry and transparency. Bitterness and acrimony linger.
Still, Akram's two short Birmingham League stints provided lifelong memories for those who shared a dressing room with him or who sat, with slightly elevated heart rates, on the other side of the wall - experiences begetting barroom yarns that have been polished into greatness down the years. Or even immediately, in the case of Barnt Green's Richard Hall, who went back to the club after the game at Smethwick to tell second teamers he had cover-driven the legend for four, neglecting to mention Akram was bowling left-arm spin at the time.
For humble clubbies brushing shoulders with genuine A-league greatness, even the bad stories are good stories. Like Karl Pearson's, who confirms both having imbibed several Red Bulls before batting and adopting an ill-advised front-foot strategy. "But my recollection is Wasim barely ambled in during his opening spell," he says, tongue not far from cheek. "Their skipper must have had a word with him at drinks when we're 130 for none, and only then did he start bowling the speed of light. 'H' and Wrighty will disagree, but I went in to face a completely different bowler! Anyway I was quite happy with the way I played the first two balls. Third ball I didn't even see.
"To be fair, Wasim came in the shower later and checked how my hand was. A true gentleman and legend of the game. It was an absolute honour to have my fingers smashed by the great man!"
Scott Oliver tweets @reverse_sweeper
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.