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The class of ’92: Bad leaves, worse exits, and wicked reverse swing

The Class Of ’92: Reverse Swing, Racism, And Right Honourable Judges
Phil Walker by Phil Walker 7 minute read

Phil Walker looks back on the volatile Pakistan tour of England in 1992, and a stormy series between two teams that brought the best and worst out of each other.

It’s just after tea on the third day of the final Test. The series is tied at one apiece. It’s muggy in the middle, and Waqar Younis has just indicated his desire to kill Robin Smith. A recurring motif of the summer, it’s left Smith a little perplexed, for Waqar had always seemed so friendly before play, greeting him with a smile and a word or two in Urdu. The confusion dissipates when Smith later discovers that Waqar has been calling him a “mother****er” every morning.

Waqar’s taken the first three to fall – Stewart, Atherton, Gooch – to leave England way back in the match. David Gower, recalled mid-series after an 18-month hiatus, is up next. Waqar’s run-up starts fast and stays fast, screeching to a reckoning in a clatter of sweatbands and violence, but if it’s a cartoonish sight, untethered from accepted logic and presumably unsustainable, who cares about that? Look at that delivery stride, hamstrings pinging past mid-off. See the angle where the arm comes through, haymaking from two-o-clock, all the better for swerving it late. The swerve has been the story of the summer.

Gower plays and misses perhaps five times (“Give or take”), each one curving across him towards the slips. He considers that he may not be playing especially well, and resolves to tighten up. “The final one starts on the same line as the others, and I duly left it beautifully.” Except that this one doesn’t swing away. Instead it holds its line and snakes back against the arm, against physics, right at the last. “Too late. It just clipped the top of off-stump.” Pakistan are on the verge. Gower walks off slowly. It would be the last ball he faced in Test cricket.

***

There’s a strong case to be made for Waqar and Wasim Akram’s partnership in the early Nineties as the most formidable ever seen. Although Wasim was five years Waqar’s senior, the 1992 series saw both in their prime. Throughout that summer, neither deviated from the top five in the rankings. By the end of it, Waqar, at 22, had taken 10 five-wicket hauls from 19 Tests.

It was as if Imran Khan had set out to find the two cricketers who could most perfectly encapsulate the extremes of his own personality, ensuring his spirit would flow into the next decade. Wasim was the alchemist. Waqar brought the rage.

The writer John Crace, who worked with both men on a joint biography, recalls how it used to go: “It would be an exaggeration to say they were like long-lost blood brothers but they had a connection that ran a great deal deeper than just the coincidence of being two of the world’s finest fast bowlers leading the same international attack. When Waqar returned to join the squad [after a back injury] for the 1992 series, Wasim couldn’t have been happier. One innings Wasim took five wickets, in the next Waqar. It was almost as if they were taking it in turn. They were even at the crease together for Pakistan’s nail-biting win at Lord’s.”

Their personal relationship would later deteriorate in mysterious circumstances, only improving in recent years as both embraced grandee status. But for those early electric days they were inseparable.

The summer caught fire at Lord’s. The series had actually begun with a rain-affected draw on a flat one at Edgbaston, but the game offered little, save for confirmation of Alec Stewart’s brilliance as an opening batsman, and a reminder of Salim Malik’s class in cahoots with Javed Miandad, now installed as full-time captain after Imran’s latest and final retirement.

Lord’s was seismic. It would turn out to be Ian Botham and Allan Lamb’s final Test matches, both men castled on the first day by huge Waqar induckers, the old ball hooping in the heat of the afternoon. Botham and Lamb would soon be done as Test cricketers. But that didn’t mean they’d be going quietly.

After a 123-run opening stand between Stewart and Graham Gooch, the series blueprint was established as England lost their last eight wickets for just 87. But this wasn’t just a standard-issue English middle-order collapse; something extraordinary was happening with the ball in the hands of Wasim and Waqar, something so extraordinary that some members of the English dressing room, aided by what Crace describes as “a grumpy, disobliging and occasionally racist British press”, sought explanations in murky corners.

That was all to come. Pakistan had a game to win, and set about building a first-innings lead. Miandad, the master of spin, was the only one of the top five to miss out.

Just four years on from his first attempts at bowling leg-spin, Ian Salisbury, a floppy-haired 22-year-old doing good things at Sussex, faced up to Pakistan’s captain. “There had been a lot of talk about me being the first leg-spinner to play for England for 22 years, since Robin Hobbs,” he recalls. “When I first came on to bowl I was given a standing ovation before even bowling a ball! It was an unbelievable feeling. But it didn’t do much for the nerves.”

The wicket ball was a classic: drift and dip, pitching on leg stump and gripping, taking the leading edge as Miandad looked to roll those pearly wrists, the ball popping up to Botham at silly-point. “To get my first wicket, the great Javed Miandad, was incredible, but for the catch to be taken by my childhood hero was unreal. It was probably my one good ball in Test cricket.”

After Pakistan crept past England’s total, Stewart strapped them on again. With scores of 190 and 74 so far in the series, he knew what to expect. “I was probably at a slight advantage opening the batting against them. They were hard to face with the new ball, but at least it was just conventional swing, and you could get yourself in by the time the ball started to reverse. I probably had 25 or 30 on the board by the time it started to go, whereas everyone else came in with the ball already reversing.”

Right on cue, it went again. England sank from 108-2 to 175 all out, Wasim and Waqar sharing six more to go with seven in the first innings. Stewart recalls standing at the other end helpless. “They were the two most devastating bowlers I played against. Before or since, there haven’t been two better bowlers of reverse swing. At 90-odd mph they were as quick as there’s been, but they also had the control and knowledge to make it duck in at will. It was near-on impossible to face them. I just felt sorry for my teammates.” Stewart went unbeaten for 52 overs.

Pakistan almost blew the run-chase. Chris Lewis reduced them to 18-3, and Salisbury chipped in to leave them 81-7. When Devon Malcolm nicked off Mushtaq Ahmed, it brought Waqar in to join Wasim with 43 still needed. Six months earlier, Pakistan had defeated England in the World Cup final. It felt like a provocation when Wasim took guard in the same lime-green helmet he’d worn in that tournament. The pair scavenged runs where they could, and chipped away until Wasim was able to strike, belting Salisbury through the covers to clinch it, Imran looking down from the executive box.

“Lord’s was the ultimate,” Wasim later told me. “We always enjoyed beating England, there’s a history behind it, plus the British invented this game and thought it belonged to them, but we made sure we beat them. That game was the ultimate.”

***

The third Test at Old Trafford came and went. With the second day wiped out by rain, Aamer Sohail’s first-innings double-century was spread over three days. Day four was Gower’s, rejoining the fray 31 runs shy of Geoffrey Boycott’s all-time England runs tally. “I was more nervous playing that Test match than I was playing the first one,” he says. “And this time was against a much better attack – which was another reason to be nervous.”

The shot to bring up the milestone was quintessential Gower, leaning into a drive on the up, easing into space. The painting of the moment still hangs from his wall.

“At tea-time the BBC wanted to have a chat about it with Geoffrey, but he went missing, they found him rather hard to find. It was quite a good allegory really – the blood, sweat and tears that went into Geoffrey’s runs, and then me – though I was always at pains to say that it was harder work than it looked. Eventually they found him. Geoffrey had to rather force the smile onto his face…”

Gower may have been “blissfully unaware” of the building tensions, but late on day four, the top finally blew off the series, when Aaqib Javed – the youngest and cockiest of Pakistan’s pace trio – went after the No.11 Devon Malcolm, bouncing him to the floor, at one point bowling an extravagant no-ball from no more than 19 yards. When umpire Roy Palmer warned him for intimidatory bowling, Aaqib bit back. Miandad stepped in, not to calm but inflame, and the atmosphere turned ugly. The accumulated history of this fixture shot through with suspicions of umpiring bias – a claim that boomeranged back and forth depending on which team was playing away – was rarely far from the surface. Now it had broken through.

If Pakistan felt aggrieved at their treatment at Old Trafford, then events at Leeds would send them apoplectic. The fourth Test began in curiously English fashion, under bleak skies with a cohort of county seamers queuing up to land it on a length, chief among them Neil Mallender, in for his debut.

Ghostie, as he was known, he of the billion-yard stares, wispy hair and Napalm Death B-Sides, was a wobbly archetype for Somerset and Northants. Even his boots looked borrowed from Bill Bowes. At Headingley he did what he did. Swung it, cut it, seamed it, nagged away, probed, prodded, unnerved, got under Javed’s skin, up in Salim’s box, through Sohail’s forward block and into Headingley legend. His eight wickets over two innings, bookending a Gooch hundred and another vintage collapse, left England needing 99 to square the series.

They got lucky. In the coming era of neutral umpires and TV replays Gooch would have been given out early in the piece, run out by a yard and plenty, and Pakistan may well have nicked it. Instead he scrapped to 37, before Gower, who would remain unbeaten in both innings, took over to still the hearts. “I just remember watching Wasim coming in, over and round, inside and out, and I was nudging it for ones. Ramps [Mark Ramprakash] came out and he was saying, ‘What do we do? What do we do?’ And I said, ‘Just relax. Get bat on ball where we can, pick up the ones’. I was quite proud of that partnership. I was as proud of that as many things in my career.”

The finale at The Oval was, in the end, a one-sided romp. Wrongheadedly England picked Mallender again, thus robbing us of the all-time one-cap wonder, and Wasim and Waqar swung it round Kennington to take Pakistan to their fourth consecutive series win over the English.

It also confirmed Pakistan’s love affair with England’s oldest Test ground, dating back to their inaugural victory over England in 1954; Wasim would later observe that the ’92 series was the first year when Pakistan benefitted from vocal and vociferous support in the stands.
The Test series was done. But the summer wasn’t.

***

A few days after the Oval Test, the teams resumed their five-match ODI series, by which point they were thoroughly sick of each other. As Martin Johnson put it in the Independent: “As far as Pakistan are concerned, cricket in England is run by arrogant racists. As far as England are concerned, Pakistan cheat.”

For longer than just this summer English cricket had been pondering how the hell these bowlers got so much swing, and specifically old-ball reverse swing. Now they settled on their answer. In the view of certain people inside the defeated England dressing room – and a fair few outside of it – Pakistan were tampering with the ball, gouging it with their fingernails, scuffing up the surface, kicking it around, biting it, the lot, all to get it hooping.

Matters came to a head at Lord’s in the fourth ODI. Botham and Lamb, recalled for the one-dayers, decided they had seen enough. The umpires Ken Palmer and John Hampshire agreed with them, and so midway through England’s innings, they changed the ball. What followed was one of those classic establishment fudges: the Test & County Cricket Board (now the ECB) didn’t deny that the ball had been changed, but nor did they come clean about why it had. Amid the eddies of rumour and counter-rumour, Lamb made a call to the Daily Mirror. Their subsequent front page was not especially equivocal. HOW PAKISTAN CHEAT AT CRICKET. Lamb was suspended for breach of contract, fined £5,000 by the TCCB, and never played for England again. The story and its fallout would precipitate a pathetic High Court merry-go-round of libel and counter-libel variously involving Botham and Lamb, Sarfraz Nawaz and Imran, and a whole lot of wasted money.

“It was one of those not-so-well-kept secrets,” says Gower now, while noting the oceans which have since passed under the bridge. “Let’s face it… Lamb had played at Northants with Sarfraz. And Sarfraz was obviously both an exponent and a professor of ball manipulation – of getting the ball into the optimum condition. Lamby’s point was, he’d had some first-hand knowledge of it, and eventually something snaps.”

As for Wasim and Waqar, they’re not done yet. “The allegations were heartbreaking,” Waqar told WCM last month. “Every time we went to England, we gave them a hard time. We won most of the time and that was something that some couldn’t take.” Wasim meanwhile wants an apology: “We were artists and we learnt the art from Imran. When nobody knew what we were doing they said it was ball-tampering. The same press now say, ‘It’s an art, it’s called reverse swing’, because England have learnt it and the whole world has got to know. All those people who said that we were cheaters, they should come out and say, ‘Sorry guys, we messed up’.”

The truth, for what it’s worth, is no longer especially important. Time has done its thing, and the game has moved on to bigger problems. As Robin Smith writes in his autobiography The Judge: “Those rumblings about ball tampering… take nothing away from their skill. Reverse swing is a great art and they were geniuses. To be honest, most of our complaints were sour grapes.”

Smith is only interested in recalling a “brilliant” Test series. Even if he was being called a mother****er on a daily basis.

Phil Walker is editor-in-chief of Wisden Cricket Monthly

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