Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Favourite Cricketer: Shoaib Akhtar, by Assad Hasanain

Assad Hasanain, of the superb AssadHas, writes on that most amusing playboy fast bowler: Shoaib Akhtar.  Assad tweets @assad_hasanain.

There were drugs. There were women. There were rumors of sexually transmitted diseases. There were tantrums. There were smashed skulls.  There was always adrenaline.  

Shoaib Akhtar's is one of the most fascinating soap operas to have come out of Pakistan cricket. It is of a free-spirited, proud and sometimes arrogant boy from Rawalpindi, who found his dreams in the world of cricket, but found with them the rules, the politics and pain that hounded him till the day he left.

There are many sub-plots to the Akhtar story, each as fascinating as the next. There is Shoaib the typical Pakistani boy; raised by an adoring family that struggled to make ends meet. Also, his angry, ill-tempered youth; where he picked fights on the streets, proudly wore scars on his chest and even carried a gun to scare off his enemies.  He was a cocky young talent who was kicked off a youth tour for indiscipline. 

Finally there is Shoaib the success story; the youngster who supplanted Waqar Younis in the Pakistan side, who conquered Tendulkar, who became the fastest bowler in the world and terrorized the best batsmen in the game.

My earliest recollections of him are of a sleepy morning in Rawalpindi, when he made his debut against a struggling West Indies batting lineup.  It was hard to get too excited by his early exploits; it was after all a time when the two W’s were still the toast of Pakistan cricket. Another exciting young talent, Mohommad Zahid had already taken Pakistan cricket by storm with his incredible performances against New Zealand.  Meanwhile the impressive Shahid Nazir and Mohommad Akram were also waiting on the fringes of selection.

It was only on a 1998 tour to South Africa where Shoaib first captured my imagination. On a fast wicket in Durban, he combined pace and reverse swing to deadly effect and ran through a rather shell-shocked South African batting lineup. There were obvious reasons to be excited; Shoaib had bowled the typically Pakistani spell of fast bowling that cricket fans doted on; the crushing yorkers, the sharp banana swing, the consistent clattering of stumps and the rapid procession of batsmen to the dressing room. Despite the obvious similarities to his predecessors, something about Shoaib just felt different. While Wasim, Waqar and Imran were smooth, graceful and often artistic, there was a certain savagery about Shoaib; an anger he seemed to channel every time he landed a cricket ball.

It was on the historic tour of India in 1999 when Shoaib Akhtar finally got the public attention he had always craved. His two iconic yorkers to Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar were to win Pakistan an unlikely victory and become an instant part of cricketing folklore. Not since the wickets of Allan Lamb and Chris Lewis in the 1992 World Cup final had two balls generated such a furore in Pakistan cricket. The '99 World Cup that followed the Indian series, provided the perfect platform for Shoaib to announce himself to a global audience that had for the longest period been starved off true pace. 

Ever the showman, Shoaib started the tournament in exhilarating fashion; delivering a searing bouncer to Sherwin Campbell that kissed the edge of his bat and flew over third man for six. In a matter of a few games the entire cricketing audience had taken notice. The fastest bowler in the world had well and truly arrived; the era of Shoaib Akhtar had finally begun. Or so it seemed.

The story of the remainder of Shoaib Akhtar’s career is tinged with controversies, disciplinary issues and a smattering of match-winning performances. Ironically, Shoaib’s  biggest challenge throughout his career came not from the batsmen that he bowled to, the chucking or drug allegations he faced up to or the authorities that he defied. 

His biggest enemy in fact was his own brittle body; the body that he had built up through weight training and excessive running to withstand the rigors of fast bowling; yet the body that was ill-equipped to handle the immense stress he was putting on it. It is a testament to his mental strength and love for the game that Shoaib was able to fight back from repeated injuries and maintain high levels of performance throughout his career. 

His comebacks were a thrill in themselves; I recall waking up early in the morning and excitedly counting the minutes to Shoaib’s opening bowling spell. I remember worrying that after months out of the game Shoaib would perhaps not be able to bowl at the same exhilarating pace. 

It was but a needless worry. Once he was warmed up, the speed guns would inevitably started clocking the 90mph mark again; balls would again start flying past nervous batsmen. I remember looking anxiously at Shoaib every time he winced in mild discomfort and praying that it was not another serious injury. Even when he performed, I applauded nervously, fearing that his fragile body would not be able to withstand the stress of his heroics. I found it rather tragic that the pace that was his biggest asset was also in fact his biggest burden. True to his persona though, Shoaib would never stop entertaining; stubbornly he refused to slack his pace, retaining the long run up and vigorous bowling action that made him the bowler that he was.

For those brief uninterrupted periods that he played without injury, Shoaib Akhtar was an incredible sight to behold. His raw pace meant that he was able to take flat wickets out of the equation; his unrelenting spirit allowed him to achieve scarcely believable feats, especially in Tests. 

Over time I came to associate Shoaib Akhtar with a certain type of miracle-worker, one who would defy all logic and achieve extraordinary things on the field of play. A Test against New Zealand in 2002was the perfect example of what a motivated Shoaib could achieve. Pakistan closed their first innings at 643, and a bored Shoaib let loose. For 8 glorious and intimidating overs, he steamed in on a completely placid Lahore wicket; I remember wondering if there was anything the Kiwis could have done differently; every yorker was so consistently accurate, every bouncer so relentlessly brutal. It was no surprise therefore, that 5 Kiwi batsmen ended with their stumps in disarray. Ironically, Shoaib’s contribution to the Test ended with the first innings. He walked off injured after his spell, but not before he had already delivered the game's knockout punches.

There were numerous other instances where he did just the same, especially against the world champions of the time Australia.  Shoaib Akhtar was quite often the only saving grace in an otherwise depressing mediocrity of Pakistani performances. In 1999, he bowled what Justin Langer swears is the fastest spell ever bowled in Test cricket. Then there was his unforgettable performance in the VB series of 2002 when Shoaib went head-to-head with Brett Lee and produced some of the most destructive spells of fast bowling every seen in the ODI format. 

My personal favorite however was a performance in a Test in Colombo where he made the best of a hopeless situation and ravaged a powerful Australian batting lineup. Within a spell of a few overs the Australians had collapsed to the pace of Shoaib; he had single-handedly put his side with an unlikely shot at victory.

It was not always smooth sailing however for Shoaib Akhtar. The 2003 World Cup match against India - probably the biggest of Shoaib’s career - will remain a blight on his impressive resume. Concentrating too much on pace, Shoaib was handed a harsh lesson by Sachin Tendulkar who smashed him to all corners of Centurion Park. It was the turning point in Shoaib’s career; dropped in the aftermath he finally realized that there was more to fast bowling than extreme pace.

Given the chastening World Cup, Shoaib Akhtar came back a far more intelligent bowler. He became better at varying his length and exploiting batsmen's weaknesses. I relished his thrilling battles against Matthew Hayden in the 2004 tour of Australia; Shoaib openly baited Hayden in the media and promised a thorough challenge to the Queensland southpaw. As it turned out, Shoaib was precise in his assessments; he played on Hayden’s heavy footwork and kept trapping him on the crease, opening up a weakness that bowlers exploited to Hayden's retirement.

It was in the 2006 home series against England however, that Shoaib Akhtar was in his element as a fast bowler. If stories are to be believed, Shoaib prepared extensively for the series, drawing detailed charts for each of England’s batsmen to formulate his game plan. It was one of the rare occasions when cricket saw the complete bowler in Shoaib Akhtar; when he used intelligence and a rare combination of pace, movement, bouncers and slower balls to deliver the defining performance of his career.

The 2007 series against South Africa was the last time Shoaib bowled Pakistan to victory in a Test match. The game summarized his career to perfection. Picked on a hunch by Pakistan’s delusional cricket chief Nasim Ashraf, Shoaib landed in Port Elizabeth a man on a mission. 5 days later, he had bowled South Africa out for 120, picked up a hamstring injury, fought with the Pakistan coach and boarded the return flight to Pakistan. It was, in a way a microcosm of Shoaib Akhtar’s career; the random spurts of inimitable brilliance, accompanied by injuries and moments of total insanity.

Away from the field of play, there was more to Shoaib Akhtar, than the angry, violent exterior that he conveyed on the cricket field. Beneath all the macho aggression lurked a rare innocence and a terrific sense of humor.  Interviews with Shoaib would reveal his angst with being a misunderstood man; he struggled throughout his career to dispel the bad-boy image that the media had so conveniently associated with his personality. His statements sometimes made me wonder if he likened himself to a Bollywood star, persecuted by society; a broken, misunderstood hero.

Less surprising perhaps was the adventurous, often rebellious side to Shoaib Akhtar’s personality. While the rest of the Pakistan team ventured more towards overt religiosity, Shoaib was the rare exception, the rebel who would try extreme sports, court women in parties and drive around in fancy cars. These tendencies were perhaps the primary reason for his uneasy relationship with Inzamam-ul-Haq as he stubbornly refused to get sucked into the religious culture rapidly perpetuating through the Pakistani team. His huge ego unfortunately only added fire to rumors of indiscipline as he repeatedly refused to bow down to powerful chairmen, captains or even the laws of the game that he loved.

It is rather unfortunate that the majority of the Pakistani public only warmed up to Shoaib Akhtar in the closing stages of his career. At the World Cup in 2011 it was obvious that the Rawalpindi Express was on borrowed time: his knees had finally given way and he lost the strength to keep fighting his inevitable end. He hung on for that fairy tail ending he so desperately wanted but sadly never got his chance and left cricket a bitter, emotional man. 

It was perhaps fitting in a way that a career that had frittered away so much promise should end in the mire of regret. For those of us fortunate enough to see him at his best though; the memories of his galloping run to the wicket, the brutality of his bowling and the flight of his celebration will forever remain the endearing memories of his career.

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