Friday, December 7, 2007

Fast bowlers, Kerry Packer, and the power of role models

Reading Mohammad Asif’s interview reminded me that we are far from a convincing explanation for Pakistan’s relative abundance of fast bowlers compared with India. Asif’s explanation, which happens to be a common view among many people both sides of the border, is unsustainable. India and Pakistan are countries divided by a line drawn by humans not by dint of physical or dietary attributes. Indeed, India has had several bowlers who have periodically touched high speeds. Javagal Srinath and Ajit Agarkar are examples.
I have an alternative theory: the power of the role model. In the early years Pakistan enjoyed the luxury of higher quality swing and seam bowling than might have been expected of the fledglings of world cricket. You couldn’t, however, have called them express pacemen. Sarfraz Nawaz, the godfather of reverse swing—and probably much else besides—was nothing more than fast medium from an enormous crazy-horse run. His rookie partner was a medium pace inswing bowler, Imran Khan.
When Imran and the other glitterati of Pakistan cricket joined Kerry Packer’s circus, they mixed with the game’s best and fastest bowlers. Clearly Imran was highly self-motivated and focused, but the Packer experience helped him understand the standard he and his country had to reach to compete at international level.
Post Packer, Imran became a true role model as fast bowler, captain, and glamour boy. Without him would we have had Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis? Probably yes, but in the way they developed, probably not. Without Imran, Wasim and Waqar would we have Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif? I guess not. It is interesting how many Indian fast bowlers also point to Wasim, in particular, as a role model.
All of which leads me to a troublesome conclusion. If you accept my hypothesis about the power of role model, what example are Shoaib and Asif setting? Shoaib’s unprofessional attitude has become legend, and an intermittent maestro is an unsatisfactory role model. Both of them have been tainted by the drugs scandal. Under a new captain, coach, and reprieve from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Pakistan cricket has the look of somebody who has cheated the electric chair: bewildered euphoria.
Shoaib and Asif must now become role models who will inspire their team but also the future fast bowlers of Pakistan, a serious responsibility. We will now discover if they are capable of greatness like the role models who went before them.