Neatly folded away in a box at the back of my study is a short-sleeved sweater. It is fluorescent lime-green, with red, blue and white stripes across the shoulders. It is undeniably hideous. Whoever was in charge of its design was either having a bad day or a good laugh. It is, though, one of my most treasured sporting possessions. It is the sweater that Wasim Akram wore in the final of the 1992 Cricket World Cup in Australia and gave to me in the dressing-room of the Melbourne Cricket Ground just minutes after Pakistan had won the final against England and he had been named Man of the Match. How and why Wasim gave me that sweater is the story of a cricket world that has all but disappeared.
I’d spent several afternoons at the Oval watching Surrey in 1991 and, like everyone else, I had been mesmerised by the bowling of Waqar Younis. His pace and reverse swing were breathtaking and he was picking up a hatful of wickets every time he bowled. These were friendlier, gentler times for cricket and gradually I got to chat with some of the Surrey players and was occasionally invited into the dressing-room. At some point in the summer, I had the idea of writing a book about Waqar and Wasim. The World Cup was coming up that winter and Pakistan were touring England the following summer. I sensed that Wasim and Waqar might be the stars of both and that an English readership might be ready for a more culturally nuanced take on Pakistani cricket than the patronisingly empire-heavy slant that had previously tended to be the default cultural reference point.
Astonishingly, given that I had never written a book before and my cricket writing had been limited to a few 800-word articles in The Cricketer, a publisher reckoned it would also be a good idea and handed over an advance. Not a big one, but enough to cover the costs of writing the book. Just as amazingly, Wasim and Waqar agreed to talk to me and help me with the book for far less money than even I was getting. So I got to work: first in the library at Lord’s and then at a one-day triangular tournament between Pakistan, India and the West Indies in Sharjah, where Wasim and Waqar would give me long interviews in their hotel rooms in between matches and practice and would occasionally invite me along to team functions in the evening where I would mix with ambassadors, Bollywood stars and the great and the even greater of Pakistan and Indian cricket. For a wet-behind-the-ears English writer, the experience was eye-opening.
Come the start of the World Cup, Waqar was out of the tour with a back injury and Pakistan’s early performances suggested they would have no chance of qualifying for the semi-finals. A lacklustre defeat to the West Indies had been followed by a functional win over Zimbabwe and only the arrival of heavy rain had prevented them from being rolled over by England in Adelaide. I was the only Englishman in the ground who was praying for the rain not to stop, because by now I would have hopelessly failed the Tebbit test. I was unashamedly an honorary Pakistani.
At the beginning of the World Cup, I was treated with some suspicion by most of the Pakistan squad and management. But as time went on and players saw me chatting to Wasim, they realised I was on their side. I wasn’t the enemy. I wanted them to succeed every much as they did. I was as downcast by their defeats and uplifted by their successes as they were. The longer the tour went on, the more relaxed everyone became. Players would confide in me their fears and worries and talk of divisions within the team – a Pakistani cricket team couldn’t exist without divisions – and they trusted me not to blab. Even Javed Miandad came to trust me. I had become part of the furniture.
For a while, though, the performances didn’t improve. Pakistan lost to both India and South Africa and by the time they flew to Perth for matches against Australia and Sri Lanka they had to win every remaining game. The legend has it that at this point Imran Khan told his team they had to fight like cornered tigers. That may be but it felt more to me as if the team had finally relaxed a bit and that those senior team members who had been openly feuding with each other decided to call a truce. There was also something about being in Perth, thousands of miles away from the rest of the World cup action, that seemed to help.
I noticed the change at net practice. I had always made a point of attending every net session; it was a great opportunity to observe the relationships between players and a good way of showing I was committed to their cause – that I was prepared to put in the same hours they did. In Perth, the players were enjoying their net sessions more and towards the end of one of them, Wasim looked up and said: “Why don’t you come and have a bowl as well, John?” I needed no second invitation and in my jeans, T-shirt and trainers started to serve up the sort of medium-pace rubbish that I regularly bowled in my capacity as third-change seamer for one of England’s more useless cricket teams, the Hemingford Hermits. I loved every minute.
Thereafter, my bowling contributions became a regular feature of the tail-end of every Pakistan net session in Perth. And I did have my successes. Zahid Fazal, the reserve opening batsman who went on to play nine Tests, got a nick to one ball – that as usual didn’t deviate – for what would have been a simple catch behind. I still count that as my first Test wicket. Wasim and the other Pakistani players celebrated my success as loudly as me: Zahid was mortified. I also reckoned I got Wasim out. He hit one ball straight to where a mid-on would have been standing. Wasim argued that no one had ever stood in that particular mid-on position when he has batting and therefore it couldn’t be out. We agreed to differ. In my own Wisden Almanack of 1992 that went down as my second Test wicket.
These weren’t lasting friendships but there was a shared sense of adventure and comradeship. Although superstars in their own country, most of the Pakistan team were young men trying to make a living and getting not very well paid for doing something they loved. In that sense, they weren’t so different to me. This was well before the mega money hit cricket and made even an average talent comfortably off. For this tour, the senior players picked up just £200 for each game while the younger players were all getting by on £35 per day out of which they were expected to pay for their own food and laundry. On matchdays they got £10 less, because the Pakistan board reckoned the players would be fed at the ground. I’m not sure how simpatico Kevin Pietersen would have found those arrangements.
Pakistan’s on-field performances picked up and wins in their last three group games booked them an unlikely semi-final berth against New Zealand. By now, I almost felt as if I was part of the squad. Not least because I had been blessed by the big cheese himself. It had been one of my goals to get Imran Khan to write the introduction to the book and on several occasions I had approached the great man after net practice to ask him. He had never said no, but he hadn’t exactly said yes either. As far as I remember, he didn’t actually say anything much at all. He just sort of looked down at me, with an expression that could have been interpreted as either “I’m still not sure who the hell you are or what you are doing here” or a benign, if wearied, tolerance. Before moving on. Just after the last qualifying-game in Christchurch, though, I received a summons. “I will talk to you, John. Come to my hotel room at 9 this evening.”
I turned up bang on the dot and knocked. “Come in, John,” said a deeply languid voice from inside the room. An unfamiliar man opened the door and brought me to where Imran was lying naked, face down on his bed. “I hope you don’t mind if I have a massage while we’re doing this,” he said. I wasn’t really in a position to refuse. Trying to concentrate while a masseur was digging his elbow into Imran’s glistening bare butt-cheek didn’t make for the easiest of interviews but we got there in the end. I had my introduction and memories to last a lifetime. Word must have got round that Imran had given me the thumbs up, because I soon became even more entrenched as part of the unofficial Pakistani cricket tour. For the semi-final in Auckland, won by a remarkable innings from Inzamam, I was invited to be part of the Pakistani ball-by-ball radio commentary team. I had no idea what they were saying during the bits in Urdu but every now and again they would lapse into English to bring me in. I was thrilled to be an honorary Pakistani.
The final was to be played against England at the MCG. I didn’t have to think twice about whom I wanted to win. The Hollywood ending, with my man getting the vital runs and wickets to pick up the Man of the Match award, was just the icing on the cake. I had spent six weeks on the road with these guys. I knew them, I liked them and I wanted them to win. It didn’t even cross my mind that I might be being somewhat disloyal to my own country until much later.
Moments after the trophy had been awarded, I fought my way through the MCG members’ area towards the Pakistan dressing-room. A steward tried to prevent me getting in, but Wasim spotted me and invited me inside. I congratulated him and we hugged one another. I was overwhelmed and privileged to be allowed to share in their celebrations. The only Englishman in the room. Everyone was dancing to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and I joined in badly. Later on, I took a chance and asked Wasim if I could have his sweater as a souvenir. I knew it was a huge thing to ask. The Pakistan Cricket Board issued each player with just one set of clothing: that sweater was the only one Wasim had and he knew that once he got back to Pakistan he would have family and friends desperate for any kind of memento of the occasion. This wasn’t just the biggest day in Wasim’s life it was the biggest ever day in Pakistani cricket.
Wasim looked at me and smiled. He took off the sweater and threw it to me without a second thought.