PM Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and six others make the list of top 10 greatest Pakistani fast bowlers.
Mangoes, music and mesmerising fast bowlers are three things Pakistan is fondly remembered for around the world.
We enjoy the former two but will not pretend to have any insight on what makes Pakistani fruit so deliciously sweet and music so trance inducing.
The third one, the express pacers, we know a thing or 10 about. Here is our list of top 10 fast bowlers who played international cricket for Pakistan.
Silky smooth run-up, easy-on-the-eyes action, fast bowler’s aggression, decent pace, two-way swing, precocious talent, and an early debut — Aaqib Javed Sandhu (yes Sandhu) had it all. Yet, he played just 22 Tests and 163 ODIs for Pakistan in a career that barely lasted a decade. He made his debut at 16 and played his final match for Pakistan at age 26 in 1998.
The reason of his short-lived career was three-fold: one is called Waqar Younis, the other Wasim Akram, and the third, he says, is his strong aversion to match-fixing. Truth be told, Javed’s greatest misfortune was that his career overlapped with the two W’s era. Had he been born 10 years earlier or later, he could have had a much better and lengthier career, and thus featured much higher on this list. He had all the tools to do so.
He was also allegedly kept out of the side and discarded much earlier than his expiration date because of his allegation that both Akram and Younis had ‘fixed’ matches during the 90s. Akram and Younis were superstars, assets, otherworldly talents, which automatically made Javed the dispensable party.
Nonetheless, it’s not to say that Javed did not have his moments. His 7-37 against India in 1991 remained the best bowling figures in ODI cricket for almost a decade. He was just 19 at the time. His seven-for also included a hat-trick, which makes him the youngest ever bowler to achieve the feat.
He was also one of those rare Pakistani players who upped their game against India — a point signified by the fact that his career ODI bowling average of 31.43 drops by almost seven runs against India to 24.64. Oh and he was part of the 1992 World Cup-winning side.
Statline that matters: 182 wkts in 163 ODIs an avg of 31.43
Finest moment: annihilation of Indian batting line-up
Arguably Pakistan’s greatest-ever T20I fast bowler, Umar Gul has had quite a career. But he could have had an even better one, had he not been hit by serious injuries at critical junctures of his career.
Gul was the new blood inducted into the side after the disastrous 2003 World Cup to replace the old guard featuring Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. He announced himself on the big stage with a devastating five-for against a robust Indian batting line-up in 2003 in Lahore but injured his back soon after and was sidelined for more than a year.
He returned stronger but in the next few years he realised that the five-day format was too gruelling for him to carry the team on his back. The ODIs, and especially the T20Is, were a better fit for him. Thus, he focused on shorter formats, mastered the art of bowling swinging yorkers and at one long stretch was the best T20 bowler in the world.
A wicket-taking nightmare at the death, Gul was instrumental in Pakistan’s march to World T20 final in 2007 and eventual win in 2009 — finishing as the highest wicket taker on both occasions.
Though still active and just 35, Gul’s career faded after 2013 due to another bout with injuries. Aaqib Javed, perhaps, had more talent but Gul ranks above, for he was the world’s best in a format at a point in his career.
Statline that matters: 85 wkts in 60 T20Is at an average of 16.97
Finest moment: Making NZ go from73-4 to 99 all-out at 2009 World T20
Across all three formats, Mohammad Asif played just 91 times for Pakistan, which is why his inclusion at number eight on this list could raise some eyebrows. But what he lacked in career appearances (or did not lack in controversies), he more than made up with his talent and skill.
In fact, on talent and skill alone, he possibly trails the great Wasim Akram only on this list. Asif was towering but wasn’t quick. His USP was his ability to move the ball off the surface in any direction he wanted, whenever he wanted. He was also a master manipulator, known to plan and bait his prey over many overs until he finally got his man.
Unfortunately, his international career was intermittently troubled by doping/drug offences before it was cut short for good over whatever happened in 2010. In 2015, ICC lifted the ban imposed on him. Still just 32, he must have still had plenty of juice left in him but knowing Asif, he probably also would have had some of his old habits left in him.
Asif edges Gul why? Because (embarrassing confession alert!) we can’t help pick craft over graft.
Statline that matters: 106 wkts in 23 Tests at an average of 24.36
Finest moment: Duping the great Ricky Ponting with 4 outswingers
Pakistan has always been blessed with precocious, wise-beyond-their-years talent. But none of the talented teens hold a candle to a 17-year-old Mohammad Amir.
The only bowler on the list whose status isn’t set and can still slide up and down from the seventh spot in years to come, Mohammad Amir’s ceiling was as high as anyone’s ever been. Experts were already envisioning a 20-year table-topping career. If not Wasim Akram who (?) then Wasim Akram 2.0 or at least Wasim Akram remix. Amir was supposed to be the Kobe to Akram’s Jordan.
It didn’t pan out like that.
Not because Amir did not have the goods, but again, because of whatever happened in the summer of 2010.
The post-ban Amir, though still effective, is a mere shadow of what he was projected to become. He is now a more line-and-length bowler than pace-and-swing bowler like he once used to. He can still find it at times, but only at times.
Still only 27, in theory he has plenty of time to grow his legacy and surpass some of the big names ahead of him on this list. But he has already quit Tests and since not every series is based in England (where he excels), chances of him climbing up the ladder are a bit slim — unless, of course, he wins Pakistan another major title.
Statline that matters: 119 wkts in 36 Tests an avg of 30.47
Finest moment: Six-for against England at Lord's as a teenager
There is a blueprint to a typical Pakistani fast bowler. He is big and strong with broad shoulders and flowing locks. He is hostile with a death stare and a permanent growl. He comes at you fast with threatening pace and aims not to get you out but to break your stumps ... or body. Oh and he reverses.
The credit for this is mistakenly given to the great Imran Khan. The incumbent PM is thought of as Pakistan’s first superstar pacer when the truth is that Khan was only a better, perfected version of a role originally forged by Sarfraz Nawaz. Perhaps, the premier has a history of being credited for something actually done by someone named Nawaz.
The potshot aside, this 6’6 Nawaz invented (or at the very least perfected) the art of reverse swing, on whose foundation so many great careers (read Khan, Akram, Younis) later blossomed.
But Nawaz’s contribution wasn’t just limited to being a pioneer of a weapon. He caused plenty of tangible damage too, especially against the Aussies.
He also bowled arguably the most devastating spell ever witnessed in cricket history, dismissing seven Australian batsmen for just one run over 33 deliveries. The Aussies went from being 305/3 to 310 all-out. Nawaz picked up nine (yes nine) wickets in that innings. The only batsman that escaped his wrath was run out.
Today, almost all teams have bowlers that reverse. It’s because of one burly Punjabi who created the magic formula and was generous enough to share it with the next generation.
Statline that matters: 63 wkts in 45 ODIs an avg of 23.22
Finest moment: Bowling out almost the entire Australian team at MCG in '79
Arguably the most controversial cricketer to ever lace up, Shoaib Akhtar was and still remains a walking, talking troublemaker. Even in retirement, he managed to stoke the flames with his 2011 autobiography, so aptly titled Controversially Yours. He has remained the same in his punditry career, too, often spitting venom with his tongue, now that he can’t with his limbs.
Shoaib Controversial, as his name should have been, has a lengthy list of injuries, misdemeanors and violations. Doping, ball tampering, abusing opposition players, roughing up own teammates, suspect bowling action, fake and real injuries of all kind, run-ins with the board, STIs (look up wartgate) — Akhtar had it all. Some of the misfortune was not his fault, especially the injuries, which are virtually inevitable if you make your body hurl things at world record pace. In other cases though, he engineered problems himself and did so with unerring consistency.
But, but and but, underneath all the baggage, was the fastest and the most furious bowler to ever live. Like many other express compatriots he did not just want to break the stumps he wanted to put a Grand Canyon-sized hole on the pitch. However, his critics — blinded by the theatrics and controversy — forget that adjacent to all the madness ran a playing career which saw him take 444 wickets across all three formats at a combined average of 24.4. FYI, those are super impressive numbers no matter how you see it.
Then there was the ability to win any match by hisself. Even on dead Asian wickets, which were almost impossible to be won singlehandedly by pace bowlers, Akhtar did the unthinkable. Away in India against names like Sachin Tendulkar, under the scoring heat, the Rawalpindi Express silenced the hostile Kolkata crowd. Who does that?
Against New Zealand in Lahore where Pakistan had amassed 643 in the first innings, he took a six-for, of which five were castled and the other one out lbw. Then against South Africa in 2000 he removed three batsmen in a single over and helped Pakistan defend a 169-run target. Just so you know, it wasn’t a T20I.
It’s a shame that his ferocious feats have faded in our memories in favour of all that was unwanted.
Statline that matters: 247 wkts in 163 matches avg of 24.97
Finest moment: Silencing the hostile Kolkata crowd
In a career that lasted just a decade, Fazal Mahmood played only 34 Tests for Pakistan. One could ask that how a bowler who represented Pakistan just under three dozen times is on a greatest-of-all-time list. The answer is one word: pioneer.
Athletes who pop up early in cricket timelines rarely compare favourably — either statistically or ability wise — to those who emerge later when the game has evolved. Ask yourself, as great as Sir Don Bradman was, would he average a near century if were playing in recent eras against the likes of Wasim Akram or Glenn Mcgrath or Mitchell Starc? Vice versa, if Virat Kohli were to be time-machined into the 1930s, what would he average? A double ton per innings, surely.
But cross-era comparisons are not made like that. The pioneers get extra points for being trailblazers, barrier breakers and providing the inspiration upon which future generations base their careers. Pound-for-pound they must be a little light and their numbers may not be as heavy but their role in getting the game to where it is cannot and should not be overlooked.
This is why Mahmood makes this list. Whatever little footage of him is available shows that he was a gentle pacer at best, the likes of which do not operate at the highest level today. But Mahmood wasn’t gentle for his time. He was actually extremely destructive, so much so that he had 10-fors in all of Pakistan’s maiden Test wins over India, England and Australia.
His finest hour came against England at The Oval in 1954 when he took a six-for while spearheading a weak bowling unit against the star-studded inventors of the game. ESPN ranked it number nine on its greatest bowling performances of all time in Tests. On another instance, he folded a far more mature Indian batting line-up.
What else do we know about him? He bowled brilliant leg-cutters and had such striking looks and physique (he was 6’2) that he got offers not just from the neighbouring Bollywood but from Hollywood too.
Statline that matters: 139 wkts in 34 Tests avg of 24.70
Finest moment: 7-42 against India in 1952
Watching the Captain, Leader, Legend, Prime Minister at number three and not at the very top could be infuriating for some diehard Imran Khanistas — even more so for youth****.
But don’t go bent out of shape just yet. This is not a list of greatest cricketers or all-rounders — races in which Khan would easily outpace all his local competition and most of his international ones too. This one is about fast bowling, and fast bowling only.
When that is the merit, Kaptan Khan still secures a podium finish. The preamble has been such that the flow now binds me to dedicate this write-up to pinpointing all that was wrong with Khan’s bowling. That’s not going to happen though because that cannot happen.
Khan was one of the greatest ever pacers the game ever saw.
Pakistan’s love affair with pace bowlers had begun in the ‘50s with Fazal Mahmood but it truly turned into a K...K...K...Kiran-kind of obsession when Khan entered the fray. Khan the cricketer was arguably the most complete athlete ever. He had literally everything from express bowling to reliable batting to leadership and jaw-dropping looks.
In fact, like it happens in movies, he even had an anticlimactic career ending in 1987 in front of his home fans, partially from his own mistake. But also like it happens in the movies, he came back and turned a bunch of young underdogs into the fabled “cornered tigers”.
This was not a movie script but real life.
But enough of swooning over Khan the overall cricketer; the task today is Khan the pacer. So good was he that he was among the world’s best in an era when Australia and especially the West Indies were producing World Class bowlers on demand.
He had a beautiful run-up, a perfect jump and a decent action — all three of which combined to generate scary pace. On one fine day, his old pal Sarfraz Nawaz taught him the art of reverse swing as well, making the future prime minister completely unplayable at times. The great Sunil Gawaskar-led Indian side of 1982 would attest.
They were 102-1 in the second Test in Karachi when Khan returned for a spell with the old ball. Soon, the guests were 114-7 comprehending what hit them. Khan finished with 8-60 that day with seven of his victims being bowled or trapped lbw.
That was Imran Khan.
Statline that matters: 362 wkts avg of 22.81 in Tests
Finest moment: 8-60 against a shell-shocked India in Karachi
The four most basic statistical categories to gauge a bowler’s effectiveness are the wickets taken, average, economy and strike rate. That’s eight for both ODIs and Tests. Waqar Younis edges out Imran Khan in five of the eight categories, and in some by a very wide margin.
The Burewala Express has 789 career wickets for Pakistan as compared to Khan’s 544. He also was equally lethal in both the formats, whereas Khan was a tad less in ODIs. He also has the best strike rate in Tests among all Pakistani bowlers. He edges out Khan for a reason.
But let’s not reduce Waqar Younis to mere numbers, as impressive as they may be.
What was Waqar Younis? A force of nature that was plucked from a TV screen by his mentor Khan, who also taught him everything there was to know about making the ball do crazy things in the air. Built like a tank, the pupil was also a quick learner. He absorbed all of Khan’s wisdom and perfected ‘the art’ alongside his accomplice Wasim Akram, with whom he had a love-hate relationship (think Shaq and Kobe).
At his peak, Younis was among the fastest in the world or probably even the fastest. But he wasn’t Shoaib Akhtar fast — and that was because bowling just fast and nothing else wasn’t Younis’ thing. His game was also about making the ball move mid-air at high pace or doing what some call the 'banana swing'.
His repertoire wasn’t as deep as Akram’s but he still had plenty of tricks, all of which had rapid pace at the core. He was at his most lethal when bowling full and targeting the wickets, which was every single time. When facing an in-form Younis, batsmen had a simple choice to make: save your studs or stumps.
The only chink in his armour was that at times he conceded too many runs and did not have Akram’s control, consistency, and most importantly, the shrewdness. Akram was cerebral. He stopped relying on pace long before he could. He also cut his run-up short and that helped him extend his career to almost two decades. The southpaw’s numbers grew to historic levels as a result.
The other W was a bit on the reckless side. Younis also ditched pace late in his career, or rather, lost it, and with that, the banana swing disappeared. In between, the two hatched as many plans against each other as against opposition batsmen. And Akram being the bigger, shinier superstar, won most of their ugly battles. Some suggest, and Younis strongly believes, that him playing just three ODIs in all of 1999 and just one at the World Cup that year owed everything to their strained relationship.
Another knock on Younis’s career is that while Akram raised his game at the biggest stage (at least he did it that once), Younis always went missing when it mattered the most. In ’92 he was out injured, in ’96 Ajay Jadeja happened, in ’99 Akram sidelined him and in ’03 the team suffered a humiliating exit under him.
Let’s end this how it began: with some numbers. The true extent of Younis’ devastating greatness reflects in the fact that of all the bowlers in Test cricket with at least 350 wickets, his is the second-best strike rate (43.4) behind just Dale Steyn’s 42.3.
Statline that matters: 373 wkts avg of 23.56 in Tests
Finest moment: Cleaning up Aussie tail with a reverse swinging clinic
Rub Wasim Akram’s shoes against other and you will find 10 bowlers like me in their dust.
This Shoaib Akhtar quote, though accurate, is out of context in its present form. It was a qualifier for what was going to drop in the very next sentence. Akhtar would add that as great as Wasim Akram was, everyone knows about the match-fixing scandals of the 1990s. He'd leave it at that.
Akhtar’s juxtaposed evaluations of his mentor are exactly the twin facets that define the left-arm legend's godly gifts and tainted legacy.
It’s still a shame that we have to start what is effectively a Wasim Akram tribute with the mention of his darkest secret. But then the Wasim Akram story isn’t complete without the Justice Qayyum report (where his name was mentioned 144 times yet he escaped with a slap on the wrist); the 1996 World Cup quarter-final where Dan Kiesel reportedly said that he faked an injury to deliberately sit out the match; the Ata-ur-Rehman testimony saying that Wasim Akram told him to bowl badly; and the 1999 meltdown against Australia.
But that’s all the bad. All the good sees Wasim Akram dwarf the talents of the other nine entrants on the list by himself. He did not bowl — absolutely not. Bowling was for the earthly. Wasim Akram did black magic on red and white balls to make the batsmen feel blue.
He checked all the boxes you’d need in a fast bowler. Tall, southpaw, lightning quick, aggressive, swung where he wanted to when he wanted to, and extremely intelligent — Akram was all those things. On top of everything he inherited a super mentor in Imran Khan and a perfect strike partner in Waqar Younis. Exposing the enemy tail was half as difficult for him, thanks to the other W at work from the other end.
Akram was fast, or could have been fast, but it wasn’t his USP. His specialty was his swing and variety. Most bowlers have a trick or two or three in their repertoire. They can mix and match but eventually have to return to what’s already been tried before. Wasim Akram could bowl six completely different balls in an over. Only a six-ball over’s limitation kept him from bowling a seventh different one.
Cricket has had many, many incredible quicks. Singling out the greatest among a century’s worth of contenders is a subjective call. But if you want to define Akram’s true greatness with absolute objectivity, this is the way to go: narrow the field to just swing bowlers. Can you now put anyone above Wasim Akram? Me neither.
Statline that matters: 502 wkts in 356 ODIs at an avg of 23.52
Finest moment: The 35th over of World Cup final in '92.
Honourable mentions: Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Zahid, Shabbir Ahmed