Thursday, August 24, 2006

Wasim Raja - A King among Men.

There are some test cricketers whose test record doesn’t speak about their true talent and enormous entertainment they have given to the spectators all over the world with their batting or bowling or fielding. Wasim Hasan Raja who died at age of 54, while playing for Surrey in an Over 50s match yesterday at Marlow in Buckinghamshire. August 23rd, 2006 is definitely one of those cricketers. Not only Pakistan, but the entire Cricketing world has lost a great cricketer and a true gentleman. A tremendous crowd puller and a charismatic cricketer Wasim Raja remained a favorite among the cricketing fraternity through out his life. His Test cricket record of 57 tests over a two decade period during which he aggregated 2821 runs at an average of 36.16 with 4 hundreds and 18 fifties and 51 wickets at 35.80 though may not really reflect the abundance of talent he possessed as an all-rounder, the way he took upon the bowlers and batsmen of the cricketing world was a treat to watch for those who were fortunate enough to see his exploits on the field. Living upto his name Raja - he Played the game like a King among Men.

With a remarkable coincidence Wasim Raja’s younger brother Rameez Raja, who went on to achieve more fame as cricket administrator and commentator, too had played 57 tests and scored just 12 runs more but scored two hundreds less and had a lower avg of 31.83. Considered as Pakistan’s Gary Sobers Wasim Raja was truly loved by every cricket lover all across the world for his breathtaking stroke play. He believed in enjoying cricket rather than burdened by it and never bothered in accumulating records. In addition to that the way he kept himself away from all the controversies that are part and parcel of any Pakistani test cricketer’s career is something else that need to be commended. He kept himself above the politics of Pakistan Cricket

His performance in just one tour of Pakistan in West Indies during 1976/77 itself is enough to make him rated among the greatest left hand batsmen of all-time. Prior to that series Wasim Raja made just nine test appearances with just one century to his name which too incidentally came against the mighty West Indians during their 1974/75 tour of Pakistan in the 2nd test at Karachi. When Windies under Clive Lloyd’s captaincy were on top of the world with their fast bowling battery firing on all cylinders, this young left hander with just nine tests experience but with full of promise stood tall. Without wearing any headgear he clobbered all their pacemen and shred their attack to pieces and sent them to every corner of the cricket field. West Indies introduced two new demons with the ball Croft and Garner in the 1st test adding to their already seasoned and menacing attack which included the likes Roberts, Holder and Julien. Injury helped Michael Holding to escape Wasim Raja’s murderous assault of West Indian Pace attack. The short framed and an elegant player Wasim Raja, who almost always sported a thick beard during his test career registered scores of 117* & 71 at Bridgetown, 65 & 84 at Port of Spain, 5 & 0 at Georgetown, 28 & 70 at Port of Spain and 13 & 64 at Kingston which came at an alarming speed and along with a flurry of over the boundary hits.

Such was the power of his batting and the disdain with which he treated the West Indian fast bowlers, by the end of the test series he became the first batsman to have hit 14 sixes in a test series and became an instant hit among the cricket fans both in Pakistan and all parts of the world who hated seeing their batsmen being tortured by the vicious bowling spells by the Caribbean speedsters. No batsman ever since was able to cross that number though Andrew Flintoff against South Africa in 2003, Mathew Hayden in 2003-04 against Zimbabwe, Kevin Pietersen against Australia in 2005 and Shahid Afridi against India in 2005-06 equaled that record.

In the first test at Bridgetown he gave an indication of things to come from his bat by remaining not out with 117. He almost doubled Pakistan’s score from 223/6 to 435 just with the company of tailenders. Then in the 2nd innings when Pakistan were 158/9 with just 172 runs ahead he produced an amazing partnership with Wasim Bari to add 133 runs for the last wicket which enabled Pakistan to set a target of 306. In reply West Indies were 237/9 at one stage but test debutant Colin Croft and seasoned tail-ender Andy Roberts battled it out to save the test match. Raja’s was a match changing innings and for exactly this type of innings which became his hallmark and made his name permanently etched in Pakistan’s Cricket History. In the 2nd test at Port of Spain he again top scored in both innings for Pakistan with knocks of 65 & 84 including couple of towering sixes in both innings but could not avoid Pakistan losing the test match by 6 wickets. I wonder how many players were able to achieve that feat of top scoring in 4 consecutive completed innings in test history. I don’t think there will be many. May be I will write another Statistical piece on this.

Wasim Raja failed for the 1st time with scores of 5 & 0 in the 3rd test in a drawn encounter but in the 4th test at Port of Spain he made 28 in the 1st innings and top scored with 70 in the second to extend the winning target for West Indies to 489 and cleaned up the stubborn and resisting tail-enders of West Indies in just 3.5 overs returning with figures of 3 for 22 to let Pakistan register their only victory of the series. In the fifth test which West Indies won by 140 runs, Raja made 13 runs in the first innings which included 2 sixes and in the 2nd with the help couple of more sixes he made 64. He took 3 for 65 in the only innings he bowled. His victims in the 2nd West Indian innings were Roy Fredericks, Vivian Richards whom he clean bowled and Clive Lloyd.

On that tour of West Indies Raja topped both batting 517 runs at 57.40 and bowling averages 7 wickets at 18.71. Though he never delivered the kind of things that Pakistan expected of him he played several short and sweet innings during his career.

It’s very unfortunate that the selectors did not put enough faith in this swashbuckling and graceful left hander and rather went for traditional run machines curtailing his test career to just 57 tests. He did hit two couple of centuries and couple of nineties after that amazing 1976/77 tour first of which came seven years later against India in the second test at Jalandhar of 1983/84 series. Again he came to the rescue of his side by hitting a brilliant century after Pakistan were reeling at 169/7 and was the last wicket to fall at 337 adding 168 valuable runs with the tailenders. His 125 was again the top score for Pakistan’s innings. Wasim Raja also took 4 wickets for 50 runs in India’s innings of 374 as the match petered into a rain ruined draw. Both those figures remained his best in Test Cricket. He played his last test in 1984/85 against New Zealand at Auckland and was forced to retirement at relatively an young age of 32. For a player of his caliber his one day career was not that significant and in the 54 matches he played he reached the fifty mark just twice and aggregating just 782 runs at an avg of 22.34 and claimed 21 wickets @ 32.71

He did serve as ICC Match referee between 2002 and 2004 for 15 tests and 34 ODIs which included eight matches of 2003 World Cup in South Africa. Whatever his record says Wasim Raja will remain as one of the most graceful players to have donned the cricket field. He enjoyed cricket and spectators all over the world enjoyed watching him and it’s a fitting tribute to this great cricketer and greater human being that he took his last breath in a place where he enjoyed most. A Cricket Field.

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