Wasim Raja played cricket with panache and exuberance, disdainful of danger like a pilot on a hazardous but exciting mission, oblivious of statistics and seeking only to enjoy the game and entertain all who came to watch him play.
Wasim Hasan Raja was the arguably the most gifted Pakistani cricketer of his generation. An attractive left-handed stroke player who could switch between graceful elegance and savage assault depending on his mood and the state of the game, fearless against extreme pace and yet comfortable against spinners on surfaces where the ball turned square, his batting had quality and pedigree written all over it.Ambidextrous, as a right arm leg spinner he could bowl orthodox wrist spin, googlies and top spinners, but could also send down medium pace if the occasion so warranted. A fast runner between the wickets, he was also an outstanding fielder in the cover region in an age when fielding was not given serious attention or thought.
A natural leader of men he was groomed for the captaincy of the national side and seemed destined for it, but as the story goes he had regular clashes with the cricket establishment and this much coveted post of captain was denied to him because he had once refused to hang out a senior’s socks to dry. With a lithe and lissom frame, a thick mop of hair on his head, a moustache or beard to accompany it, a winsome, disarming smile and a flamboyant, vibrant approach to life, he had a big fan following, including many female admirers. Along with Imran Khan, he was perhaps the most charismatic member of the Pakistan side of his time.
Wasim came from a family of cricketers. His father Saleem Akhtar, had played first-class cricket as a leg spinner, before settling into a career as a bureaucrat. His younger brothers Zaeem and Rameez also became first-class cricketers as did a cousin Atif Rauf. While Zaeem’s career was limited to the first-class set-up alone, both Rameez Raja and Atif Rauf emulated Wasim in playing Test cricket for Pakistan as well.
Wasim made his first-class debut at the young age of only 15, playing for Lahore Greens against Karachi Blues. A year later he was chosen to captain the Pakistan Under-19 team in a three match series against a visiting English team of Surrey and Middlesex schoolboys. He shone with outstanding all round performances in the Punjab Governor’s Gold Cup Tournament in September 1971, where playing for the Punjab University, he scored 151 and took five wickets in an innings to enable them to beat Rawalpindi in the final. This was followed by an equally impressive show for Punjab against a Pakistan Eleven. A fifty in each innings by Wasim resulted in a very close match which the national side won narrowly by just eight runs. Further success came while representing the Punjab University in the BCCP Patron’s Trophy the following year, including a century and ten wickets in their quarterfinal match against the PWD.
The Pakistan national team was touring Australia and New Zealand in 1972-73. After the Australian leg of the tour Saeed Ahmed and Mohammad Ilyas were dropped for disciplinary reasons and Wasim Hasan Raja, who was still at University, was called out as a replacement. He made an immediate impact with a score of 86 in his very first innings of the tour against the state side of Canterbury. Though he had only modest success in the three Test matches, he headed the tour bowling averages for all matches, with 16 wickets at 17.62 runs apiece. This was despite having limited bowling opportunities because of the presence of two other leg spinners in the team, Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Mohammad.
The 1973-74 domestic season was a successful one for Wasim as he scored 789 runs and captured 65 wickets, gaining him selection for the national side’s tour of England in 1974. For a man who found the game too easy, Wasim’s true ability emerged only when he was really challenged by a demanding situation or opponents whom others could not easily counter. It was almost as if he needed an occasion to prove the point that he was a notch or two above his normal peers. The walk to the wicket was akin to a swagger, sleeves rolled up to display those strong and supple wrists, the upper shirt buttons undone, the collar turned up in defiance, this was a prince out to show common mortals how the game should be played. And he played it on his own terms, never sacrificing his flair or finesse, treating the bowling with an imperiousness that only the most gifted can exhibit.
The second Test of the 1974 series versus England provided Wasim the appropriate occasion to showcase his talent. Pakistan batted first on a sunny morning and made 51 without loss in the first hour when the weather changed. A short but heavy storm held up play for a few hours and on resumption Underwood made the ball turn and lift awkwardly and unpredictably. They slumped from 71 without loss to 130 for 9, before Intikhab declared. In a solitary show of defiance Wasim Raja attacked Underwood in a quickfire 24 that included four hits to the fence. He was out to an extraordinary catch by Tony Greig off a lofted drive that appeared to be headed for a six. Greig ran across the sight screen and leapt up to take a spectacular single handed catch with his left hand.
In reply England scored 270 in perfect weather. Pakistan, after losing 3 early wickets for 77 in their second innings, were rescued by a stand between Mushtaq Mohammad and Wasim Raja that took the score to 173 for 3 by close of the third day’s play. This was a different Wasim Raja. Playing with subdued restraint he countered the guile of Underwood and the rest of the English attack to take Pakistan to a position of relative safety. Overnight there was another downpour and it continued to rain until the next afternoon. When the covers were finally taken off it was evident that much water had seeped through them and soaked the pitch, rendering it a soggy patch of muddy turf that was impossible to bat on. After Wasim’s dismissal at 192 no other batsman could cope as Pakistan were dismissed for 226. England needed just sixty runs to win on the last day but the weather intervened once more and washed out the last day’s cricket.
In March 1975 the West Indies were touring Pakistan for a two match series. In the second Test Wasim scored his first Test century. lifting Pakistan from 246 for 6 to 406 for 8 declared. During a robust West Indian reply of 493, both Sadiq and Wasim sustained injuries. Sadiq was hit on the head while fielding at short leg and Wasim twisted his ankle while fielding and needed to have it put in plaster. Pakistan were floundering at 90 for 5 in their second outing when Sadiq came to the wicket, and with support from Asif Iqbal and the tailenders, he had taken the team’s score to 253 and his individual tally into the 90’s when the ninth wicket fell. Wasim in a characteristic show of courage came out with his plastered leg and a runner to give Sadiq the opportunity to reach his century. Alas, it was not to be as he was bowled by Gibbs leaving Sadiq stranded on 98.
The zenith of Wasim’s career came during Pakistan’s visit to the Caribbean in 1976-77. In the first Test at Barbados he came in to bat at number seven, with the teams total at 207 for 5. Against a fearsome pace bowling attack that included Roberts, Garner, Croft and Holder, Wasim in his typical cavalier style stroked his way to 117 not out taking Pakistan to 435 all out. His innings was inclusive of 12 fours and a six.
After conceding a first innings lead of 14, West Indies struck back with venom reducing Pakistan to 158 for 9. Wasim Raja along with his namesake Wasim Bari now launched a ferocious counter attack, adding 133 runs for the last wicket in just 110 minutes. Wasim made 71 with five fours and two sixes. The match ended in a thriller as the West Indies barely saved the Test with just one wicket left standing when stumps were finally drawn.
Though Pakistan lost the second Test Wasim top scored with fifties in each innings. His 65 in the first innings and 84 in the second each contained seven fours and two sixes. The 4th Test, also at Port of Spain was won by Pakistan and saw another belligerent second innings knock of 70 from Wasim with six fours and three sixes. In the final Test at Kingston, Jamaica, Wasim partnered Asif Iqbal in a 115 run stand of superlative stroke play in which Wasim’s share was 64 and contained 2 further sixes. He scored 517 runs in the series for an average of 57.44. Additionally, he also picked up 7 wickets at 18.71 runs each to head the bowling averages too.
Wasim hit 14 sixes in the series, which is still a world record. Majid commented that “Wasim could hit a six when he liked.” The legendary Sir Garfield Sobers remarked “No West Indian fast bowler can get past him in this mood.” Miandad simply labeled it as “breathtaking strokeplay.”
Wasim played one more series versus the West Indies, a four Test home rubber in 1980 in which he averaged 61.50 against an attack consisting of Clarke, Croft, Marshall and Garner. All told Wasim has an amazing record against the Windies. In 11 Tests against them he scored 919 runs at an average of 57.43. In the 19 year period from April 1976 to April 1995, when the West Indies attack was at its most ferocious, Wasim scored 763 runs versus them at an average of 58.69. The next best average of any batsman during that period is that of Martin Crowe at 45.33. It is worth remembering that he wore no protective helmets during this time.
While he was fearless against pace Wasim also played spinners with consummate ease. Using his feet to come down the wicket to them he would hoist them to all corners of the ground or use his wrists to play them square off the wicket with equal mastery. This was perhaps best demonstrated on Pakistan’s tour of India in 1979-80. Taking on Pakistan’s arch rivals on their home grounds on wickets specially prepared for India’s spinners was too tempting a challenge for Wasim to resist. He rose to the occasion scoring 450 runs at an average of 56.25. Miandad with a series average of 42.10 was the only other Pakistani batsman with an average of over 30.
After retiring from the game Wasim had a spell as coach of the Pakistan Under-19 team and also functioned as an ICC match referee for 15 Tests and 34 ODIs. He married and settled in England teaching geography and mathematics at the Caterham School in Surrey. He died prematurely early in 2006 at the age of 54, from a massive heart attack while playing a match for the Surrey Over-50s cricket side.
Wasim played cricket with panache and exuberance, disdainful of danger like a pilot on a hazardous but exciting mission, oblivious of statistics and seeking only to enjoy the game and entertain all who came to watch him play. He would often face Imran in the nets without pads, leading Imran to remark that Wasim “was in a different class altogether.” Indeed he was; a true raja amongst men, blessed by nature with prodigious talent and elan.
– Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books.