An Interview with Mohammad Akram by Abdul Habib 9th September 2008 This is one of the most candid interviews you'll read anywhere and Mohammad Akram really deserves a lot of credit for speaking his mind about his career and experiences with international cricket. It reads less like an interview and more like a discussion because Mohammad brought up a lot of interesting points and wasn't afraid to expand on them. He comes across as a very relaxed and laidback person who is at peace with his past and looking to the future. I hope you all enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it. Abdul Habib: What first got you into cricket? Mohammad Akram: I never set out to become a cricketer, as a young kid I was very laidback and just enjoyed playing street cricket with all the other kids. After a few years of tape ball cricket my friends would tell me that I should go into cricket professionally and that I could make a career out of it but I wasn't interested. At that time I already had a goal, I was going to college to get my law degree and cricket was just a past time. Abdul Habib: What changed your mind? Mohammad Akram: I was trying to get admission into Gordon College in RawalPindi but I fell short of the minimum requirements. In those days colleges would give you a place if you were good at a sport and so I used my cricket to get admission at the college. It was only after playing for the college team that I began to think that maybe I really could make it as a cricketer and that it was time to start taking cricket more seriously. Abdul Habib: One of the questions Im supposed to ask you is about your English which is very good but I guess you've answered that in the bit about getting your law degree. Mohammad Akram: Well unfortunately I didnt finish it... Abdul Habib: ...because you went into cricket? Mohammad Akram: Yeah. Abdul Habib: Who discovered you and gave you your chance to play for Pakistan? Mohammad Akram: I was playing for RawalPindi in a game against a very strong Allied Bank team, they had International players like Rameez Raja, Aamir Sohail, Aaqib Javed and Rashif Latif in their side. I bowled very well that day and after the game Rameez spoke to me in private. He told me that he was really impressed with my bowling and that he wanted me to join the Allied bank team... Abdul Habib: ...was he the captain of Allied bank? Mohammad Akram: Yes, at the time he was both the Captain and the Vice president of the Allied bank team. I politely refused his offer because I was quite happy with what I was already doing and wanted to complete my studies. About 4 or 5 months after that, in 1995, a Pakistan team camp was held in Karachi and 100 players were called up to attend. I learnt that my name was amongst those 100 players but I didn't want to go. I was in England when my name was announced for the camp and I didnt feel it would be worth it for me to travel to Karachi. I'd only played 10 or 12 first class games at that stage and what chance did I have to be selected from out of 100 of the best players from Pakistan? But a couple of friends convinced me that I should go and enjoy myself, so I went along. After about half an hour bowling in the nets at the camp I knew I was going to play for Pakistan... Abdul Habib: ...what happened in that half hour to change your mind? Mohammad Akram: I was bowling away in the nets when I suddenly noticed that all the top players had stopped what they were doing and had come over to stand around my nets to watch me bowl. Wasim, Waqar and Rameez were there too so I thought there must be something about my bowling for it to catch their attention. You asked how I got picked for Pakistan well it happened right there and Rameez played a huge part in it. In fact I was picked in the final 14 for the very next test series and although I sat out the first game. In the second game they dropped Waqar and played me, I couldnt believe it! Abdul Habib: What did it feel like debuting for Pakistan? Especially since Waqar was dropped (not injured) to make way for you? Mohammad Akram: A few months before my debut I couldn't even imagine bowling alongside Waqar and Wasim yet there I was on my debut actually replacing 'the Waqar Younis' in the Pakistan lineup, playing for Pakistan was a dream come true. I was with the team for 7 years bowling alongside Wasim and waqar and even opening the bowling. Waqar and Wasim were legends in every sense of the word, despite all their success they were still keen and hungry to play more cricket. During their playing days they both bowled non-stop either for Pakistan, for their counties or in domestic cricket yet they were very rarely injured. Contrast that with how frequently our bowlers are getting injured these days and that's despite the fact that Pakistan arent playing much cricket anymore. Bowlers like them come along once in a lifetime. Abdul Habib: Do you consider yourself unlucky to have debuted in an era where Pakistani fast bowling was so strong? Mohammad Akram: It's funny you should ask that because it's the second time I've been asked that question today. Earlier on I was sitting in the Lashings XI dressing room with legends like Greenridge, Kallicharan and others. They told me that I should've played over 100 test matches and they too wanted to know why I didnt play more international cricket. I told them that I spent 7 years sitting on the bench watching others playing, those 7 years took me away from cricket because whilst I was sitting on the bench I couldn't regularly play any competitive matches. Wasim and Waqar were always fit plus we had two great spinners in Mushy and Saqi and so opportunities in the first team were very limited. I felt my game needed developing and that I needed to bowl regularly at a competitive level. So in 2001, for various reasons, I decided it was time for me to enjoy my cricket. I signed up for a county and left to play in England. In conclusion yes i do feel sometimes that I came onto the scene in what was toughest period for Pakistani pacers to get selected due to the abundance of talent we had at that time. Abdul Habib: I believe that if you were an emerging player today then you would go straight into the playing XI. Mohammad Akram: I don't have any regrets, that train departed a long time ago and it's no use dwelling on what could've been. I feel proud and privileged to have played for Pakistan during an era where these guys you see in the team today wouldn't even be allowed to bowl to us in the nets. In those days the minimum criteria for getting into the Pakistan team as a fast bowler was the ability to regularly bowl at 88 or 90 mph. These days if you can hit 80mph you're in the side. Abdul Habib: Wasim or Waqar, who was better? Mohammad Akram: It's a very difficult question and I don't think I can pick one of them. Wasim was purely gifted, he was an amazing cricketer and was born to bowl. Waqar was very hard working and both of them were up for any challenge. They were always keen to play, always hungry for wickets and an amazing duo. I should know because I sat on the bench and witnessed about 500 wickets between them. Abdul Habib: So which one of them was more helpful to you? Mohammad Akram: Neither of them, they didnt do anything for youngsters. It was part of their policy to not let youngsters in. Abdul Habib: But what about Razzaq and Akhtar, didn't they make them? Mohammad Akram: No they didn't, Razzaq and Akhtar were very talented young cricketers. No-one could've stopped them, you just can't stop talent like that. Abdul Habib: This isn't the first time I've heard this, about Wasim and Waqar blocking the progress of youngsters... Mohammad Akram: (interrupts) ...no I wouldn't call it blocking, they didn't block anyone. It was more a case of the fact that they didn't like to see anyone coming near them or reaching them. That was part of the reason they didnt like Shoaib, they were well against him. Abdul Habib: What's your opinion on Shoaib? Is he as arrogant and aggressive as we are led to believe? Mohammad Akram: If you know Shoaib then he's a lovely chap to be around, you'll really enjoy his company and you'll certainly never be bored (laughs). However if you dont know him then it's a different story, he's that sort of character. To understand Shoaib you have to get to know him, once you get to know him, you can understand where he's coming from and what he's talking about. When it comes to Shoaib as a cricketer, I always think 'what a waste' Abdul Habib: I agree he's really wasted his talent. He's a fast bowler stuck in a bodybuilders body. Mohammad Akram: (laughs) He should be a wrestler. Abdul Habib: (laughs) So what went wrong with him? Mohammad Akram: He wasn't handled correctly, the treatment he's receiving now is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. What good does it do to ban him for a year when at best he'll only last for another year anyway, maybe not even that. It's worthless to ban him now, they should've done this to him when he was a lot younger, that was when they should have taken harsh action and imposed long bans on him. It's no good doing it now after investing so much time in him. The selectors and the PCB had no idea what to do with him and that's because most of these officials get their jobs through political assignments with the backing of some prime minister or some general. These political appointees come into the fray with little or no knowledge of Pakistani cricket or how to improve it. They end up hiring lots of advisors and with each change of personnel in the PCB the mission and direction of Pakistan cricket changes to something entirely different from the previous regime. The poor players are left stuck in the middle not knowing which way to turn or who to trust. The same thing happened to Shoaib. When he needed strict discipline and tough love he was allowed to do as he pleased and now when he needs to be handled with the velvet glove he's getting the iron fist. Abdul Habib: How should he have been handled? Mohammad Akram: We used to play together for Rawalpindi and there were never any problems with him because we never gave him that much importance. The PCB should've been tough with him from the outset and dropped him early on in his career. If he was hungry to play cricket then he would've sorted himself out and come back fitter, stronger and more disciplined. Abdul Habib: I agree. The PCB have given him an inflated sense of his own self-worth, much in the same way they did with Razzaq whom they never dropped even when he wasn't performing and when they finally dropped him he thought it an injustice. Mohammad Akram: The problem with Pakistani cricket is that players are kept in the national team for all the wrong reasons. For example, if I'm the captain of Pakistan and I know that I can rely on Razzaq to support me then I will keep him in the team regardless of his performance. Too many players end up playing far too many games because they are 'yes men' whom the captain can rely on. This has been happening in Pakistani cricket for a very long time, players are kept around based on their loyalty to the captain and not on their performances or ability. Abdul Habib: When Rameez Raja approached you, after the 2003 World Cup, to come and play for Pakistan you declined his offer, what was the reason behind that decision? Mohammad Akram: The reason was a very simple one. I spent 7 years touring with the Pakistan team at a time when the average wage for an ODI game was 7,000 rupees and the average wage for a test match was 15,000 rupees (which works out to 3,000 rupees per day). Imagine working for less than £30 a day and not only trying to survive on that wage but also trying to maintain the image and the lifestyle expected of an International cricketer too! Even if you forget about the financial aspect, there is no job security when playing for Pakistan. In those days we didnt even have central contracts and so if I didnt make the squad then I didn't get any wages. When Rameez approached me I asked him to give me a proper run in the team, I asked him to either guarantee me two years with the team or to promise me 10 test matches as a first choice bowler. I said that if I didn't perform well then I'd step down myself but I told him that I wasn't prepared to be called up for 1 test match and then dropped if I didnt perform. All I wanted was a proper run in the first team which I've never got despite touring with the squad for 7 years! In those 7 years I only played 9 test matches and 23 ODIs most of which were played 5 or 6 months apart. Every time I was picked in the team it felt like I was making my debut and I often knew that I wouldn't be playing the next game no matter how well I bowled. I was under constant pressure throughout those 7 years, I was expected to just walk into an international game with no match practise and to take tons of wickets just to hold onto my spot in the squad. As a cricketer you perform differently when you know that you'll be playing regularly, in that situation you know you can be more attacking, you can experiment more and you can go for wickets too. That's why I chose to stay with Surrey and continue to enjoy my cricket, another factor was that although Surrey would have understood I didn't want to break my commitment to them. The decision was entirely mine and not anybody else's. Abdul Habib: What attributes do you think make a good fast bowler? Mohammad Akram: Well first of all you need the talent to be there, if that's not there then it's no use going forward. After that you need to be hard working because fast bowling is probably the most difficult discipline in the world of cricket. You need to look after your body, have the ability to learn quickly and you need to be very strong mentally to cope with the occasions where you will be smashed all over the park. You will need a lot of mental strength to be able to come back and still take wickets. Abdul Habib: Your bowling action is very similar to Michael Holding, did you try to copy him when growing up or did it come about naturally. Mohammad Akram: Well a bit of both really. I've always admired Holding and Walsh, I really enjoyed watching them bowl. I did try to copy Holding's action but it's very difficult to fill those boots. I've had lots of analysis done on my action and I've been told that my action is the most relaxed action of any fast bowler, I've been told its even more relaxed than Holding. In fact Sussex County have asked me if they can use my action as a model action with which to coach their youngsters. Abdul Habib: You've just mentioned Holding and Walsh, what other cricketers did you admire when growing up? Mohammad Akram: I always liked watching Wasim and Imran but there was a special quality about Wasim's bowling that stood out for me. Growing up I was a huge fan of Wasim Akram and his bowling style, he really was something else. Abdul Habib: Describe your 5 wicket haul in a test match against Australia, in the same game Wasim only took 1 wicket. Mohammad Akram: Waqar was dropped for that game and I came in to play in his place, I took 5 wickets and and my first 3 wickets were taken in 4 consecutive overs at the start of the game. After my performance that day I was told that I was going to get a long run in the test team, they told me that I'd finally made it. However when we got back to Pakistan there was a change in government and Saeed Anwar became the new captain of Pakistan, Saeed was a very close friend of Waqar and I was told that since Waqar was the more senior player he would be playing and not me. That was the point at which I decided that enough was enough and that I had to find a way out of this groundhog day. Abdul Habib: When did that happen? Mohammad Akram: That was in 1999, I did play two more test matches after that but despite my optimism nothing had changed. The final straw was in 2001 when Aaqib Javed (who was then a selector) came into my hotel room to tell me that with both Wasim and Waqar being fit I was not needed in the squad for the upcoming Asian Test Championship. I had a contract with a club here in England and so I took the next flight out of Pakistan and came to England to play some cricket. Then suddenly I got a phone call from another selector, Zakir Khan, telling me that not only was I in the Test match squad but I was also going to be playing in the final XI vs Bangladesh at Multan. He also stressed that the game was taking place the day after tomorrow and that I needed to come back, so against my better judgement I tried to get a flight back to Pakistan. Unfortunately it was too short notice and I was unable to get back in time, so they banned me for two years for not turning up to play. Abdul Habib: That's ridiculous. Mohammad Akram: No, that's Pakistan cricket. At the time Pakistan had a team full of captains, everyone was a superstar and the PCB were trying to find some way to give the impression that they were a strict board that maintains discipline to a very high standard. Since they couldnt go after one of their superstars, I became the sacrificial lamb who was banned for two years. In the end the ban was lifted within the first year (in about 8 months I think) but by that point I'd decided that I didn't want to play for them anymore. Abdul Habib: I had a question asking why despite you having the height, the pace and the bounce you averaged 40 in ODIs and 50 in Tests but after talking to you it seems clear that 9 tests and 23 ODIs in 7 years spent with the team would explain that quite adequately. Mohammad Akram: There is that but that's not the only reason. Even if you only consider the games where I got a chance to bowl then you'll see that in test matches in more than half the innings, I only bowled a dozen or so overs. A specialist bowler should be bowling 25+ overs per innings in every game, a test match isnt an ODI for me to only have been bowling 10 over per innings. Even in ODIs I only bowled my full quota of overs in less than a quarter of the games in which I played, does it make sense to play a specialist fast bowler and not have him complete his quota in over three-quarters of the games that he plays? Us younger bowlers felt that we only got the chance to bowl when the batsmen were set and the team was looking for a breakthrough, as soon as the breakthrough was achieved we were removed from the attack and Wasim or Waqar would come back in to finish off the job. I don't blame them for it, perhaps it was the best tactic to get the experienced bowlers back on but it meant that I didn't learn as a bowler. I wasn't playing any regular competitive cricket and because I was always touring on the bench I didn't get the chance to hone my skills in first class cricket either. It was a difficult situation to be in and a fast bowler can only get better by playing regular competitive cricket. Abdul Habib: That's very true. If you look at Akhtar today then he's a far more complete bowler with better variation and gameplans than he was in his earlier days. Mohammad Akram: I wouldnt say he's a better bowler now, he was at his peak in 1999 to 2002. After that he's only gone downhill. Abdul Habib: I agree with that, what I meant was that mentally he's a far better bowler nowadays than he was when he was younger. Akhtar knows what he needs to do, he knows where and how he needs to bowl even if his body is unable to execute the gameplan his head comes up with. Mohammad Akram: I understand what you mean now, yes it's very true. As with everything else, in cricket there is no substitute for experience. I've always maintained that we shouldn't throw these 20 year old kids into the international team before they're ready for international cricket. We should make them grind out a few years in first class cricket so that they can gain the mental strength that they will need when they face the best in the business on the world stage. We should also educate them about the world, about what trials and temptations will come their way when they get so much fame and adulation at such a young age. We should impress upon them what it means to represent your country and how your actions as an individual can negatively affect your country's image on the International scene when you're representing your nation. Abdul Habib: That's some really good stuff so far, what else would you do to make Pakistani cricket more competitive? Mohammad Akram: Pakistan's problem is that the PCB is mainly staffed with non-cricketers who know nothing about the game or what's good for the game. Even the chairman is usually someone who hasn't been involved in cricket in a professional capacity and who relies on advisors rather than taking the decisions himself. Over the last decade or so Pakistan cricket seems to have gotten into a rut, there's no long term gamelan and no joined up thinking. It's all about soundbites and knee jerk reactions. Cricketers tend to enter their prime in their late 20s, that's when they've accumulated enough experience and control over their discipline for them to be able to use their skills more effectively. Look at players like Lee and Flintoff, they're now much better cricketers than they were when they were in their early 20s. In fact look at the best team in the world and how they pick their talent, the Aussies pick battle-hardened warriors who have been ground in the domestic scene for upto a decade before they get their chance at an international debut, often when they're close to 30. Those players are mentally very strong because they've been through many battles and learnt the hard way, in contrast Pakistani players dont have that mental strength. They panic too easily and because they're so young they have no experience to fall back on. It's reached the stage where getting a Pakistan cap is now a common thing and not something to be coveted. In it's first 45 years as a cricketing nation Pakistan handed out 132 caps, now compare that to the last 5 years where 80 caps have been given away! That shows two things. One that the standard for earning a cap isnt what it was and two that we dont develop our cricketers. We just give them a cap and then forget about them, we need to start thinking long term. Abdul Habib: The first time I personally heard your name (I wasn't a big cricket fan pre-2003) was when Imran Khan mentioned it during commentary for the 1999 WC, the pace of Akhtar was being discussed by the other commentators when Imran said that if you think Akhtar is fast then we have a guy called Mohammad Akram who is just as fast as him. Did you know about that? Mohammad Akram: Actually I was playing in England at the time but no I didn't know about that. However it doesn't surprise me because Imran is the one who insisted I was sent with the Pakistan squad to Australia after the 1999 WC. I only played one test match but I picked up 5 wickets, Imran had me specially picked for that tour and I'm grateful to him for it. Abdul Habib: We still see you clocking 90mph in county cricket sometimes... Mohammad Akram: (interrupts) ...maybe a couple of years ago but not anymore. These days I bowl around 85mph, I've cut down on my pace to lengthen my career and I'm relying more on seam and swing than on pace. Abdul Habib: How fast would u say u were at your peak? What's the fastest delivery you've ever had clocked? Mohammad Akram: I think about 92mph was the fastest delivery I've had clocked but then there were lots of deliveries which I bowled that were never clocked so I dont know the answer to that. Besides I don't trust speed guns, they are static cameras set at the same height for every bowler and I feel they give inaccurate results but it's too complicated to go into on here. Abdul Habib: Who was faster Mohammad Zahid or Shoaib Akhtar? Mohammad Akram: I feel with his awkward action at that pace, Zahid was a far more dangerous bowler than Akhtar. It was his action that cut his career short, it wasn't a normal or relaxed action. Zahid was very fast, if he wasn't faster than Akhtar then he was at least as fast as Akhtar. Abdul Habib: In 1997 Pakistan could have fielded a bowling attack of Waqar, Wasim, Akhtar, Zahid and yourself. That's three 95mph+ bowlers and two 90mph bowlers, would that have been the fastest bowling attack in the history of cricket? Mohammad Akram: Yes you could say that, it would certainly have been the fastest bowling attack in Pakistan's history. But in 1997 the two W's werent regularly bowling at over 90mph. I think their peaks lasted till about 1995, after that they both slowed down a lot. Although it is potentially the fastest bowling attack we would never have played together because Pakistan had two all rounders (Azhar and later Razzaq) and two great spinners (Mushy and Saqi). Especially Saqlain who at that stage was such a great match winner that there was no way he could have been dropped, so I dont think this attack would ever have played together. Abdul Habib: What happened in your last test match? Pakistan were bowled out by Martyn, Tuffey and Franklin for 104 and 118 vs NZ but on the same pitch NZ scored 407 and only lost 4 wickets. Mohammad Akram: We didn't bowl very well but neither was there anything wrong with the pitch, Pakistani batsmen need to learn to bat in overseas conditions. Unlike New Zealand most English pitches these days are very similar to Asian wickets and because of that many Asian batsmen begin to think they can play overseas if they score in England but they get exposed in places like New Zealand and South Africa. It's difficult for any bowler to defend a total like 104 and our bowling was more suited to dry batting pitches where the ball starts to reverse, these days I've cut down on my speed but in those days we were all about pace and we'd get carried away on pitches with any assistance, we'd try to knock off the batsman's head instead of aiming at his stumps! Abdul Habib: 10 years ago Pakistan were producing 150k pacers like Zahid, Akhtar, Rauf, Rana, yourself and others without any effort yet these days we struggle to find someone who can hit 140k. What went wrong? Mohammad Akram: Every country has a period where they are overflowing with cricketing talent, that was Pakistan's time and now it's gone. I'm sure these sorts of bowlers are still out there but the PCB need to get out there and hunt down the talent. They need to get into villages because boys in the village tend to be much stronger than their city counterparts. They also need to invest in school cricket and create a proper scouting system. Abdul Habib: Have you seen any promising bowlers in domestic cricket? Mohammad Akram: At the moment I feel that Yasir Arafat is one bowler which Pakistan are really wasting, he's mentally very tough and needs to be given a long run in the side. Abdul Habib: What about Sohail khan, Wahab Riaz, Sohail Tanvir, Mohammad Aamer and Anwar Ali? Mohammad Akram: Pakistan haven't played a lot of test cricket for a while and that's helped a lot of these guys establish themselves on the fringes, limited overs cricket is nothing like test cricket and I'll reserve judgement on them until I see what they can do in test cricket. Abdul Habib: What happened in South Africa when you and Saqlain were mugged? Do you think it negatively affected your career? Mohammad Akram: It was a very simple situation which everyone read about in the papers. I was quite young at the time and these things happen in international cricket. I dont think that it can affect your whole career. Abdul Habib: The match was delayed by 24 hours and the Pakistan team were talking about going back, was it really that dangerous? Mohammad Akram: There was nothing dangerous there, we were given full security after that incident. Actually the whole series was played in a good manner. Abdul Habib: When you are commentating your views tend to be quite balanced, will u be commentating on the Champions Trophy or the home series vs India? Mohammad Akram: I'd love to commentate if im asked but I think a lot of Pakistani selectors weren't happy with my last appearance so unless it's TenSports I dont think it's very likely. If they want me, I'd love to do it. Abdul Habib: Have you received any offers from the ICL? Mohammad Akram: Yes I have received a few offers, I even accepted and was given the green light by the ICL organisers but my very dear friends in the ICL didn't want me there and I was unable to go. Apparently I'm too upfront if you can believe that (laughs) Abdul Habib: (laughs) What do you plan to do once you retire from cricket? Coaching, umpiring or commentating? Mohammad Akram: Not coaching, I dont think its my type of job. I'd like to look into commentating in some capacity. Abdul Habib: Thank you for the interview and all the best for the future!