Sultan: A Memoir By Wasim Akram and Gideon Haigh, Liberty Publishing, Karachi, ISBN: 978-9356294622, 308pp.
With his official autobiography Sultan: A Memoir, Wasim Akram — the ‘Sultan of Swing’ — teams up with Australian journalist Gideon Haigh to give us a behind-the-scenes look into a career spanning 20 years and plagued with controversies.
Making it clear early on that the book is an attempt to set the record straight, the cricketer pulls no punches in addressing the ball-tampering and match-fixing allegations against him, his volatile relationship with Waqar Younis, Pakistan-India issues, his personal life, his cocaine habit and his career choices after retirement.
Apart from cricket, Sultan gives probing insights about Pakistan and the broader social and political context in which Akram played. It begins with the cricketer claiming that nothing in Pakistan is as big as the country’s “XI.” He also draws parallels between the country’s perpetual political chaos and the unpredictability that has become both the allure and the curse of the Pakistani cricket team.
Observing that no Pakistani prime minister has served a full term, he follows up with the fact that he himself has played under 13 different captains. Most served multiple terms and Akram, too, got four shots at the captaincy.
In the initial chapters, we truly get to see Akram’s struggles, hard work, his professional coming-of-age and his journey to become one of the greatest fast bowlers of all time. He credits Khalid Mahmood for discovering him on the streets and Javed Miandad for giving him his first shot in the team. He recounts fond memories of playing English county cricket extensively at the beginning of his career with the Lancashire County Cricket Club and how it groomed him into a well-rounded athlete.
What shines through in the book’s first half is the towering presence of Imran Khan in his life and his significant role in helping Akram become a remarkable bowler. The first time Akram met Khan was at the Sydney Airport in 1985; he had come to Australia after taking 10 for 128 against New Zealand in only his second Test. He ended up forgetting most of what their interaction entailed, owing to Imran’s presence and beauty: “he looked like a god: the face, the hair, the physique. I simply could not take my eyes off him.”
Akram’s observations on Imran Khan at the height of Khan’s career make for interesting reading. According to him, Khan was dismissive of his own talent, choosing to credit hard work instead. Also standing out is Akram’s reverence for Khan for teaching him the importance of self-discipline and fitness. Akram found a mentor in Khan; Khan, a protégé. According to Akram, “I was his project.” He relates how, when Khan was at his home in Zaman Park, Akram would seek him out and credits Khan with coaching him in his lethal weapon on the field: the reverse swing.
Off the field, Akram was smitten by Khan’s magnetic aura and recounts several stories highlighting the international stardom Pakistan’s erstwhile cricket captain and former prime minister enjoyed. There’s an interesting story about Khan taking Akram to a restaurant and introducing him to singer Elton John — whom Akram did not recognise. In India, he witnessed lavish parties thrown in Khan’s honour by wealthy business tycoons.
A second regular fixture in the first half of Sultan is Akram’s late first wife, Huma. She is the other figure from whom Akram drew his motivation. He recounts meeting Huma at a party where he had accompanied Khan and swiftly fell head over heels. “Till this point in my life, Imran had been my only partnership. Now I had a second, and was about to form a third.”
The “third” relationship refers to the prominent association in Akram’s cricketing career that has intrigued people — the one he shared with Waqar Younis. Akram claims to have admired Younis early in the latter’s career as another Pakistani on the English county circuit, “particularly one I had helped and foster.” They came to be known as ‘the Two Ws’, the duo that intimidated international batsmen during the 1990s.
Cricket fans will enjoy Akram’s euphoric regaling of tales of Pakistan’s memorable victories — the infamous 1986 Sharjah match against India, the 1989 Nehru Cup and, of course, the 1992 World Cup. He credits Imran Khan wholly for the success of ’92, calling him “our captain, our coach, our chief selector and our conscience, too.”
However, some teammates begrudged Khan’s attempts to raise funds for his hospital on the back of the victory, which they felt blighted the joy. Akram recounts an episode after the World Cup, when the team was being bussed home from a dinner hosted by the Pakistani ambassador to Singapore to raise funds for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital.
Javed Miandad and Ramiz Raja called Akram over to air their grievances that, if there were money to be raised off of cricket success, it should be theirs. According to Akram, this issue created a lasting rift between Khan and some of his senior players.
The book also broaches the fraught relationship between the cricketing greats Khan and Miandad. The years following their captaincies heralded some of the darkest days in our cricketing history, where the team was mired in internal power struggles.
Akram’s own relationship with Younis soured after the latter was named vice captain, which created “a second centre of power in the team and, in some ways, a stronger one, as I was isolated, reluctant and struggling.” Akram considers vice captains “a perennial bane of Pakistani cricket” and claims that each one of his deputies tried to undermine his authority in the team.
This section of the book, which addresses the unravelling of the Pakistani team amidst the controversies surrounding it, comes across as the most disingenuous. Akram casts his teammates as either good or bad, waxing lyrical about the mighty Khan and reserving harsh critique for Rashid Latif, whom he brands a “lobbyist.”
He also passes scathing remarks on his contemporaries Aamir Sohail, Ataur Rehman and Saleem Malik for attempting to sabotage Akram’s position in the team. However, when addressing the notorious spot-fixing allegations against him, he claims innocence and altogether inculpability.
The ball-tampering accusations levelled at Akram and Younis by the English also marred the team’s reputation. Akram attributes this to racism — recent incidents show it is still prevalent — and “the ongoing English paranoia about reverse swing.” The sole exception to this hue and cry was Geoff Boycott, who was of the view that the Two Ws could “bowl England out with an orange.”
As for the match-fixing charges, Akram attributes them to internal power struggles in the team as well as to Khan’s retirement, which left the team unmoored.
Another section that will pique cricket fans’ interest is Akram’s encounters with emerging superstars. It was in the unlikely setting of the Nairobi Gymkhana that he first encountered the phenomenon of Shahid Afridi, “a Pathan teenager from Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal neighbourhood.”
He also remarks on Shoaib Akhtar’s undeniable talent and how, when he once chose Akhtar over Younis in a match, the senior cricketer did not talk to him for a year. Akram eloquently describes Akhtar’s obsession with breaking the 100 miles-per-hour barrier during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa: he was like “a vain man who cannot tear himself away from a mirror.”
Among the many entertaining anecdotes about his various tours is a recollection of how the security cordon of the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) was augmented by snake charmers, to ensure safety in case the ultranationalist right-wing party Shiv Sena made good on the threat to release cobras in Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium.
As entertaining as these stories are, Akram has told them over the years, so they’re not entirely new information. He does, however, give an exclusive glimpse into his personal life, admitting he wasn’t a very good husband or father during the better part of his career.
Confessing his inadequacies as a parent, he describes himself as “the classic Punjabi male parent: I turned up occasionally scattering gifts, but left the burden of child-rearing to my wife.”
Huma appears to have been his anchor through the tumultuous years, helping him stay focused on the field and away from self-destructive choices off it. When his glamorous lifestyle got him hooked on cocaine, Huma had him admitted to a rehabilitation facility in Lahore.
The facility charged an arm and a leg, but was seemingly run by quacks and it wasn’t long before he started using again. Akram attributes his dalliance with drugs as a desperate attempt for the adrenaline rush he needed after retirement and it was only Huma’s sudden death in 2009 and the grief that followed that put a final stop to his cocaine habit.
Akram also comments on the state of affairs now, both on and off the field, compared to his cricketing days. He remarks that, when he was leading Pakistan on a tour to India in 1999, the Shiv Sena goons were regarded as crackpots. “A decade and a half on, their views were mainstream.”
He also reflects on how, in the last two years, the death of his Australian contemporaries Shane Warne, Dean Jones and Andrew Symonds has made him contemplate mortality and the fact that his generation is “closer to the end than the beginning.”
The reviewer is a clinical psychologist and freelance journalist. She can be reached at email@example.com