Shoaib Akhtar: Playboy, serial offender or a champion? | Pakistan Today

Shoaib Akhtar: Playboy, serial offender or a champion?

COMMENT – As Pakistan’s run in the World Cup ended on Wednesday, the sport’s landscape became a slightly grayer place. That’s because it marks the retirement of a character as colorful as a paintbox in a tumble dryer: Shoaib Akhtar. The 35-year-old fast-bowler has long represented all that is most glorious-and most ridiculous-about the wonderful world of Pakistani cricket. At times among the most devastating bowlers ever, the so-called Rawalpindi Express was exhilarating to watch; he was at various times also arrogant, badly behaved and involved in fallings-out with more or less everyone.
Shoaib has always been an inconsistent, erratic enigma.
But for better or worse he’s also always been the consummate entertainer.
There’s one other thing he’s always been, and that’s very, very fast. At Cape Town’s Newlands stadium in the 2003 World Cup, he propelled the ball to England’s Nick Knight at a remarkable 161.3km/h, or 100.2mph, crossing the magical 100mph barrier. It remains the fastest ball bowled since reliable measuring equipment was introduced. The remarkable thing is that his pace only slightly diminished in the eight years since, at an age when most fast bowlers cut down on the fire and the fury and focus more on accuracy, or lose their zip and flame out early. As you’d expect from such an express-pace bowler, his bouncer was incisive, rising sharply without a perceptible change in bowling action.
But at his best he was also capable of delivering among the most clinical yorkers in the game, the ball arrowing in toward the batsman’s toes, often leaving them sprawled on the floor as they jabbed their bat futilely at the ground as the stumps cartwheeled behind them. Many times, he just bowled straight and blasted out batsmen’s stumps with pure pace. Shoaib also unleashed the most extraordinarily hostile spell of bowling I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, against Zimbabwe in the 1999 World Cup at The Oval in London. That day he approached the crease in his characteristically pacy, bouncy yet sleek, light-of-foot fashion-a ninja crossed with a wrecking ball-shoulders low and chest open, purring up through the gears before his high-speed wind-up, prelude to a low-angle slingshot-fling of the ball. At times, he was so scarily fast that the Zimbabwean batsmen appeared to be trying to hide behind the square-leg umpire.
He’s also been a serial offender on numerous fronts-banned and injured for so much of his career that he only played 46 Tests in 14 years as an international player. Even his apparently poor luck with injuries-knee, back, side, hamstring, calf, ankle, shoulder, wrist, groin and ribs-has led captains and coaches to question his commitment. In 2004 the Pakistan Cricket Board convened a special medical panel to ascertain whether his injuries were genuine, so disenchanted were coach Bob Woolmer and captain Inzamam-ul-Haq with his attitude; it found in his favour. Less defensible, however, was his decision to go on a jet-ski ride while supposedly suffering from calf and groin injuries in 2003.
As early as 1996, a year before he’d even made his Test debut, Shoaib was dropped from a Pakistan squad for his attitude, and then cited for indiscipline on a subsequent Pakistan A (reserve team) tour of England. He was again sent home from tour of Australia in 2005, and his tendency to fall out combustibly with teammates reached its apogee in 2007, when he was involved in a locker-room fight with fellow fast-bowler Mohammad Asif in which the latter sustained a leg injury, allegedly inflicted by a bat-wielding Shoaib. Members of other teams have also attracted the fiery fast-bowler’s ire-he was banned in 2003 for abusing South African spin-bowler Paul Adams-and even his relationship with crowds has been suitably eventful: a brick was thrown at him in Bangladesh in 2001, and he was banned for throwing a bottle at someone in one in Zimbabwe in 2002.
Bans are a bit of a theme in Shoaib’s career. His longest came for what many people who regard as his most minor infraction (some, in fact, would regard it as a feather in his cap): publicly criticizing the Pakistan Cricket Board. This being Pakistan, the five-year ban was revoked after three months, but not before Shoaib had been threatened with legal action after accusing PCB chairman Nasim Ashraf of banning him because he’d refused to give him a share of his Indian Premier League earnings. He’s also been repeatedly accused of ball-tampering-illegally altering the condition of the ball, usually by scratching it or picking at the seam to make it swing more-and was banned for it in 2003.
In 1998, meanwhile, he was no-balled for a suspect bowling action-essentially, accused of throwing it like a baseball-and again in 2001. He was subsequently cleared, but it caused yet more lengthy gaps in his stop-start international career. In 2006 he was banned for two years for taking performance-enhancing anabolic steroid nandrolone. Again, it was overturned by a PCB tribunal on appeal, much to the chagrin of the World Anti-Doping Agency, but when Shoaib, along with fellow fast-bowler Mohammed Asif, was withdrawn from the Pakistani squad shortly before the 2007 World Cup on spurious injury pretexts, the implication was clear. He also has a reputation as a bit of a playboy.
The PCB accidentally-on-purpose leaked it to the press in 2009 that the “skin infection” that had precipitated his removal from the World Twenty20 squad was in fact genital viral warts. Shoaib threatened to sue but never did. With most other players, that might be the most memorable thing about them. Cricket has moved on in so many ways in its professionalism over the past 20 years, and understandably so given the game’s dramatic economic expansion. But that expansion means continuing to engage an audience, often new to the game, that’s hungry for entertainment. Super-athletic, media-trained, error-free cricketing automata may provide clinically thrilling action on the field, but they’ll never deliver the drama of an Shoaib. He remained to the last someone people could identify with, precisely because he was so flawed while being so undeniably brilliant. It’s the paradox of Shoaib: a once in a generation talent who was also a very odd kind of everyman. I’m going to miss him. (Wall Street Journal)

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