Wasim Akram

'The speed gun is killing swing'

It isn't about muscle, aggro, and going 100mph; it's about using guile, wit, and science to think a batsman out. Swing bowling's finest exponent Wasim Akram talks about the craft he helped make famous

Interview by Sambit Bal

Wizardry is a term often associated with spin bowling, but magic filled the air every time Wasim Akram ran in to bowl. The economy of his run-up and his final delivery stride rarely revealed his huge bag of tricks. The ball was imparted life during the last-second release and it had the will of modern cricket's most versatile fast bowler imprinted on it. It is a tragedy that Akram's career would forever be shrouded in controversy, because for sheer skill, inventiveness and imagination, he stood alone among his peers. In the following interview, Akram reveals a few secrets of his success, but not all. It was conducted during the Sydney Test in January, and appeared in the February 2004 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket.

His own left arm: 'That [ability to bowl quick off a short run] was God's gift' © Reuters

The reference to the mind in cricket is often made in the context of batting, but bowling is equally a mental craft. You were perhaps among the most thinking bowlers in international cricket. Can you describe your mental process while bowling?
Most of the thinking happened while I was walking back to my run-up. I had a very short run-up, so in those eight or 10 seconds I had to visualise the next ball - where I was going to pitch it, what I would like it to do off the pitch, and anticipate how the batsman was likely to respond to it. It is a short time, but you have to be clear in your mind. You have to judge your last ball and then decide your next one.

You can't just start your run-up and then think about the ball. It does happen that you change your mind midway in your run-up. There have been times when I have started running thinking I would bowl an inswinger but ended up bowling an outswinger, but those were rare.

What kind of mental preparation did you put into a match?
Any top bowler has to prepare before a match. You study the pitch, the batsmen, and decide what kind of approach is most likely to succeed. Of course, you need to be flexible. If Plan A doesn't work, you must have a Plan B. It could happen that none of your plans will work and you will get hammered for 17 runs in over. There are days when you are not good enough, or the batsman is too good for you. But with the new ball in particular, you must have three or four different plans. You might come in thinking the ball will swing, but it may not. Then you shouldn't be caught napping. Then you might want to just bowl a tight spell. Sometimes I would bowl slow balls to stop the batsmen from scoring runs. Fast bowling is not all about fitness and power; it is not about big, dumb men with biceps and triceps. You need to be able to analyse the weaknesses of the batsman, read the conditions, use the conditions.

How much did you think about individual batsmen? Did you always have definite plans for the great batsmen?
It depended on the conditions. If there was swing, you didn't have to try to do too much. Good balls are good balls for anybody. But if there was no swing, and the ball wasn't doing much off the pitch, then you had to apply your mind a lot. The important thing about bowling to good batsmen is knowing their likes and dislikes, and knowing what not to bowl to them. When the conditions are not in your favour what you try is to deny the batsman scoring opportunities. Don't let them settle down, mix up your balls, bowl the line and length that they like least.

You do have some little plans. For Lara, keep two gullies and bowl outswingers; with Tendulkar, don't bowl on the leg, because he will cream you. But you can't have set plans for these guys; you need to be flexible.

Did you watch a lot of videos of batsmen?
Not really. Knowledge comes from playing in the middle. As a bowler you get a great view of the batsman. You know if he is a front-foot or back-foot player. You know how he plays what stroke. So when you come to bowl, you know what field to set to him. The coach and captain can't decide your line and length. When you are new and inexperienced the captain can suggest ideas, but if you are a frontline bowler with playing experience you should know exactly what will work. And if a certain plan does not work, you have to come up with a solution.

This knowledge of how to use the conditions, having so many tricks up your sleeve, how much of it came from learning to bowl in Pakistan where the new ball did nothing?
In that part of the world you have to learn different tricks, especially at Test level, because the wickets are not going to help you. As a fast bowler, you had to learn variety. If the new ball didn't work, you had to get the slower balls going, you had to mix them up; with the old ball you had to learn how to reverse. I was lucky to have a great teacher. Imran Khan taught me how to use the conditions, the virtue of hard work and patience, and most of all the mental side of fast bowling. He taught me never to lose hope and never to be content. To be successful, you had to have hunger.

How did you manage to master so many different balls? How much of it came naturally?
I was a natural inswing bowler. I could swing it from left to right, but then I realised that I had to expand my skills. I learned a lot of it by myself in the nets. I developed the slower ball in 1991. I watched Franklyn Stephenson take loads of wickets in county cricket with a slower ball that no one could pick and I said I must learn to bowl it. I spoke to a lot of people, Malcolm Marshall, Richard Hadlee, and then went to the nets and worked on it. I learned two variations of it, one coming in to the right-hander and one going away.

I developed the slower ball in 1991. I watched Franklyn Stephenson take loads of wickets in county cricket with a slower ball that no one could pick and I said I must learn to bowl it. I spoke to a lot of people, Malcolm Marshall, Richard Hadlee, and then went to the nets and worked on it

You also had a very unusual action. You could generate quite a bit of pace from a short run-up with your quick arm action.
That was God's gift. Nowadays you see bowlers like Mohammad Sami, Ajit Agarkar - they all have a quick arm action, which makes the ball skid on. It's a blessing. Batsmen from all over the world used to tell me that they could never pick my pace. Even though I was not lightning quick in the air, the ball used to hurry on to the batsman off the pitch. That's how I got a lot of my wickets.

You also used a lot of wrist.
Swing is all about using the wrist. Seam bowling is about hitting the seam consistently, but on most Indian and Pakistani wickets there is no seam movement. So you have to use your wrists and learn to swing. I learned to bowl outswing while bowling in the nets in Australia in 1989-90. It took me two weeks to get the confidence to bowl it in a match. In the next Test, I took four wickets with outswing. Nets seem boring to a lot of people, but I enjoyed bowling in the nets. I would try all sorts of things: go round the wicket, bowl wide of the crease, go close to the wicket, try many variations. If you want to be a good fast bowler, you have to be prepared to work very hard.

Swing is a science. It can be learned quite easily, I would say, if one were to apply his mind, and was prepared to practise long hours. And then it depends on how you adapt to the conditions and how you learn to look after the cricket ball itself.

"Looking after the cricket ball" is an interesting comment. You once said that the whole team had to be involved in it.
Yes, the whole team must know how to look after the ball. Looking after the new ball is different from looking after the old ball. It is not only the fast bowler's job. That's what the Pakistan team always did, and are still doing currently.

When did you learn to bowl reverse swing?
Almost as soon as I came in, in 1984-85. I was bowling it in three months. A great teacher like Imran was there, and so was Mudassar Nazar - very canny, very crafty.

Coming back to "looking after the ball", reverse swing certainly gave rise to lot of suspicion.
When we did it, it was ball-tampering. People were just baffled; they didn't understand what was happening. And we came from the subcontinent. In England, they just couldn't play me and Waqar; they were getting beaten every second ball; they didn't know what the hell was happening, and instead of praising us they went sour. That's what they do in England, isn't it?

Now of course, everybody understands it. So it's called reverse swing. The Pakistanis were the first ones to learn it, master it, and we still do it best.

But there have been cases where bowlers have been seen tampering with the ball. Both Waqar and Shoaib have been caught on camera.
There are umpires in the middle. The bowlers throw the ball to the umpire after every over. If people were fiddling with the ball, they would surely find out. Looking after the ball doesn't mean fiddling with it, but maintaining it in a certain condition so that it will reverse swing. Everybody today knows the basics of reverse swing, but there is a secret about how to get the ball into a certain condition, which is something we have mastered, and we will keep it with us.

Now that you are an elder statesman of world cricket, aren't you going to share your secrets?
Why should we? The world didn't help the Pakistani bowlers. It is our secret. I didn't develop it myself. It's been a collective effort by the team and we would like it to stay within the team.

Akram knew a thing or two about how to take wickets; he took more than 900 in international cricket © Getty Images

Why is swing bowling a declining art? You were easily the last of the great swing bowlers in world cricket.
I had a word with Alan Davidson yesterday, and he was asking me the same thing: where have the swing bowlers gone? You have hardly seen the ball swing in this series. Maybe they don't teach bowlers how to swing it anymore; they just ask them to bowl fast. If any young bowler is reading this, here's a bit of advice: if you want to take wickets in international cricket, learn how to swing the ball. Pace alone doesn't get wickets at this level. Swing is something that can be learned.

Would you say that the length that bowlers are asked to bowl in one-day cricket discourages swing bowling?
That is a factor. You might get some license with the new ball, but after a few overs it's wicket-to-wicket and on a length. You can't do anything else.

You managed quite well, though.
I pitched the new ball up, and managed to develop a good yorker, which was quite useful at the end. I got a lot of wickets with it. And I really enjoyed bowling at the death. It's difficult to manage both Test cricket and one-day cricket when you are new, but with experience you learn to mix things up. You learn to bowl with both the red ball and the white ball. You know the white ball will not swing after 20-25 overs, so you learn to develop the slower ball.

If it was left to you what would you do to revive swing bowling?
The biggest culprit to me is the speed gun. Everybody is getting too excited about bowling fast. Every bowler now bowls and looks up at the speed gun. We never bothered about that. We were more concerned about taking wickets than bowling at 100 miles an hour. If you want to swing the ball, you have to reduce your speed. And that's how you can deceive batsmen. The key to developing as a quick bowler is to first learn how to swing and then build up speed, not the other way round. If you can swing at a high speed, you will be unplayable.

Shoaib swings it in at quite a high speed.
That's reverse swing. I am talking about traditional swing with the new ball. Reverse swing is easier to control. Bowling with the new ball and controlling the swing is more difficult. That's why you get a lot of wide balls with the new ball.

That's interesting. One would have thought the new ball suited quick bowlers always.
In fact, for the first six or seven years I didn't enjoy bowling with the new ball. Same with Waqar. Till quite late in our careers, we would actually wait for the old ball. But then we realised that we had to learn to use the new ball too. In county cricket and in nets we worked on controlling the new ball. I would say it was in the last four or five years of my career that I enjoyed bowling with the new ball. With reverse swing, you need pace, but with the new ball you need control and skill. I could bowl big inswingers with the new ball and then I could take one away. That gets you wickets.

You once said that sometimes even you didn't know which way the ball would swing.
With the new ball, yes, that could happen sometimes. Your wrist could go a little this way or that, and you might have thought that you had bowled an inswinger and it could go out. That's why you had to keep the ball around the off stump, so that whichever way it went, it would still trouble the batsman. And the beauty of it is that if you didn't know which way the ball would go, the batsman wouldn't either.

You were pretty good at hiding the ball from the batsman.
Pretty good, I'd say. I'd take it out of my right hand [demonstrates how he cupped right hand over the ball] only when I was just about to bowl, and if the batsman was waiting to see which way the shine was facing, it was too late. With the new ball, of course, it didn't matter much because the shine was the same and the batsman tried to read the swing from your wrist, but with the old ball you could judge which way it would go by looking at the shine.

Fast bowlers, it is commonly held, hunt in pairs. But watching the Pakistan team, one often got the impression that you were bowling against each other.
There are misconceptions. Waqar and I made our mistakes when we were young. But towards the end of our careers, we enjoyed talking to each other, bowling with each other. We had our differences, but they never came in the way of our performance. We competed with each other for wickets, but it fired us up to do better. It was a professional rivalry and it was good for Pakistan. Waqar was a great bowler, and I enjoyed every bit of it while we were bowling together.

Everybody today knows the basics of reverse swing, but there is a secret about how to get the ball into a certain condition, which is something we have mastered, and we will keep it with us

But now that your cricket career is over, can you look back and say that the Pakistan team underachieved in your time because of infighting?
It had nothing to do with the players and all to do with the board. Every year they change the cricket board, so how can the players feel settled? Players have their differences, but every team has those. When we played, we always played to win. Pakistan cricket has been in disarray because they keep changing the boss. The cricket board chief is not some wagon driver that you can keep changing him at every stop. In 1999, the board changed thrice. The previous year, it had changed twice.

The captains changed too.
Yes, every time a new board came, they wanted their own boys. Not only the captain, but the coach, the manager, everybody changed. So how can the players be in one frame of mind? It's not right to blame the players. Blame the guys who keep changing the board.

Tauqir Zia was there a long time, yet you had several changes in the team. Many new players came in and then disappeared.
Tauqir Zia took more interest in running the team than in running the board. He wanted to be involved in everything - selecting players, training. He should have let the team be and handled administration.

This constant chopping and changing must have created a lot of insecurity?
Of course. It was a farce at times. The moment the board changed, you knew the captain would change too and then all the guys in the team would start getting ready to be captain. Cricket is a game where the captain is vital. He should be allowed a tenure of at least two to three years. I was captain so many times and for so many years, and never once felt secure. After every series you were left wondering if you were going to be there for the next one. We had plenty of terrible guys running cricket. Majid Khan was one. He didn't know how to handle the boys. He even stopped our mineral water saying it was expensive, though we were getting it free.

It's not like the Indian team where everything is taken care of. In India you have sponsors and you have a captain who is secure. In Pakistan, we haven't had that since Imran. And then you have a guy like Aamir Sohail, who is a joke, as the chief selector. What do you expect? You need respected people in charge. There is so much talent, we have such a good team, but if you have jokers running cricket, how can you go far? You have administrators who have never played first-class cricket, telling you that they know more about cricket than you do. What do you tell them?

Imran managed to have his say because he had the chairman backing him, he had the personality, and he came from a powerful family. In a sense, he was a dictator, but you need a bit of that in Pakistan cricket. Nobody could touch him.

If you could change one thing in Pakistani cricket, what do you think that would be?
I would keep cricket away from politics. It should be a private company with professional people running it.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo