My Favourite Cricketer….Shoaib Akhtar

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Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch are inviting cricket writers from around the globe to wax lyrical on who they consider their “favourite cricketer”. Today is the turn of Assad Hasanain, of the superb Left Arm Around, who chooses the misunderstood rebel Shoaib Akhtar. Assad tweets @assad_hasanain.

There were drugs. There were women. There were even rumors of sexually transmitted diseases. There were tantrums. There were smashed skulls.  There was always adrenaline.  The life of Shoaib Akhtar is one of the most fascinating soap operas to have come out of Pakistan cricket. It is the story of a free-spirited, proud and sometimes arrogant boy from Rawalpindi, one who found his dreams in the world of cricket, but found with them the rules, the politics and the pain that hounded him till the day he left it.

There are many sub-plots to the Shoaib 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. There is Shoaib the angry, ill-tempered youth; one who picked fights on the streets, proudly wore scars on his chest and even carried a gun to scare off his enemies.  Then there is Shoaib the 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 from the Pakistan side, the hero who conquered Tendulkar, the dreamer who became the fastest bowler in the world and the spearhead that terrorized the best batsmen in the game.

My earliest recollections of Shoaib Akhtar are from 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 tour to South Africa, in 1998, when 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 now obvious reasons to be excited; Shoaib had bowled the typically Pakistani spell of fast bowling that us 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 bowlers like Wasim, Waqar and Imran were smooth, graceful and often artistic, there seemed a certain savagery about Shoaib; an anger that 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 world cup of 1999 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. The days of his comebacks were a thrill in themselves; I recall waking up early mornings, 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 the brief uninterrupted instances when he played without injuries, Shoaib Akhtar was a sight to behold. His raw pace meant that Shoaib was able to take flat wickets out of his bowling equation; his unrelenting spirit allowed him to achieve scarcely believable feats, especially in test cricket. 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 match against New Zealand in 2002 provides just about the perfect example of what a motivated Shoaib could do on his day. Pakistan had closed their first innings on a mammoth 643 runs. A bored Shoaib Akhtar decided it was time to let loose. For 8 glorious and intimidating overs, he steamed in on a completely placid Lahore wicket. I remember wondering to myself in the midst of his spell, 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 of the New Zealand batsmen ended up with their stumps in disarray. Ironically, Shoaib’s contribution to the test match, ended with the first innings. He walked off injured after his spell, but not before he had already delivered the knockout punches of the game.

There were numerous other instances especially in games involving the world champions of the time Australia where Shoaib Akhtar was quite often the only saving grace in the otherwise depressing mediocrity of Pakistan’s performances. In 1999, he bowled what Justin Langer still swears is the fastest spell ever bowled in test match 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 match in Colombo when he made the best of a hopeless situation and ravaged through 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 game of Shoaib’s career will forever remain a blight on his impressive career. Concentrating too much on pace, Shoaib was handed a harsh lesson by Sachin Tendulkar who smashed him to all corners of the Centurion Park. It was to be turning point in Shoaib’s career; dropped in the aftermath of the humiliating defeat, he perhaps finally realized that there was more to fast bowling than his extreme pace.

Given the chastening experience of the world cup, Shoaib Akhtar came back to cricket a far more intelligent bowler. As time progressed he became better at varying his lengths to different batsmen and exploiting their weaknesses. I remember relishing his thrilling battles against Matthew Hayden in the 2004 tour of Australia; Shoaib had openly baited Hayden in the media and promised a thorough challenge to the southpaw from Queensland. As it turned out, Shoaib was precise in his assessments; he relentlessly exploited Hayden’s heavy footwork and kept trapping him on the crease, opening up a weakness that bowlers exploited to the day of 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 of SA was the last time Shoaib bowled Pakistan to victory in a test match. It was a game that 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 that was rapidly perpetuating through the Pakistani team. His huge ego unfortunately only added fire to the rumors of indiscipline about him 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. Towards the end of the world cup in 2011, it was obvious that the Rawalpindi Express was on borrowed time; the knees had finally given away and Shoaib had lost the strength to keep fighting his inevitable end. He hung on for that fairy tail ending that he so desperately wanted to his career. Sadly, he 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 a blaze of regrets. 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.

Previous Favourite Cricketers

Brian Lara by David Siddall

Allan Border by Ben Roberts

Douglas Jardine by David Green

Curtly Ambrose by Matthew Wood

Sachin Tendulkar by Subash Jayaraman

Ian Botham by Jonathan Kilroy

Shane Warne by Murray Middleton

Rahul Dravid by Sujith Krishnan

Wasim Akram by Blaise Murphet

Glenn McGrath by Gary Naylor

Ed Giddins by Nick Harrison

Adam Gilchrist by Will Atkins

Angus Fraser by James Marsh

Paul Allott by Jonathan Howcroft

Tim Bresnan by Yorkshire Len

Sourav Ganguly by Christopher David

David Boon by Jimi Stephens

Herschelle Gibbs by Justin Lawrence

Bob Woolmer by Nigel Henderson

Darren Lehmann by Daniel Gray

Kumar Sangakkara by Nishant Joshi

Justin Langer by Sarah C Robinson

Andy Bichel by Nicko Hancock

Chris Tavare by Gideon Haigh

Gavin Larsen by Ken Miller

Ray Bright by Dan Lonergan

Chris Pringle by Michael Wagener


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