Controversy was his middle name, and it is safe to say that he still loves the odd brush-up with the authorities. He was the prima donna of his era — everyone was gunning for him. A flat-footed athlete with hyper-extensive joints, he had a career full of drama, right from the chucking allegations to bashing a fellow player with a bat; Shoaib Akhtar was an enigma but he could bowl fast, really fast.
Well before his 1997 international debut, the man dubbed as ‘The Rawalpindi Express’ had acquired the reputation of an undisciplined and mercurial individual, who had blistering pace in his deliveries both on and off the field.
His Test career got off to an ordinary start as the celebrated bowling trio of Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed combined to inflict a massive defeat on a West Indian team under Courtney Walsh in Akhtar’s hometown, Rawalpindi.
But the Durban Test of 1998 against South Africa gave the world a glimpse of what was to become a regular sight in the next decade; in-swinging yorkers from a slingy low-arm action, aiming for the batsmen’s toes, which would send them, or the stumps behind them, cart-wheeling. His deliveries possessed the same venom Waqar’s did.
The heroics of Durban were repeated in high-octane bursts in Kolkata, Manchester, Colombo, Brisbane, Perth, Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi, Auckland, Wellington and Port Elizabeth. An odd glimpse of the carnage of the past returned in the Brendon McCullum dismissal, which was his last international outing in Pakistan colours in Kandy during the 2011 World Cup.
It mattered little what format of the game it was, whether it was a red ball or a white one; in Akhtar’s hands, it was indeed a weapon of mass destruction.
To date, he remains the fastest bowler of all times, delivering 100-mile deliveries on at least two occasions during his golden run from 2001 to the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.
And he was not about yorkers alone; he could also bowl a quick and dangerous bouncer. It seems that Akhtar revelled in aiming for the jugular as Sourav Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar, Justin Langer, Gary Kirsten and Brian Lara would testify. Some of them had to nurse bruised and bloodied scars along with some bruised egos.
But by the time his career came to an end, one felt it was Akhtar who was nursing a bruised ego. Right in the middle of the 2011 World Cup, Akhtar announced his retirement.
The timing and his team commitment was questioned by many. But almost everyone in that press conference at the Premadasa stadium in Colombo had tears in their eyes when Akhtar stood up to leave the room on the morning of Pakistan’s last league match against Australia. One could hear him murmur, “Bus aur na poocho rulao ge kia?” (I’ve said enough; do you want me to cry now?)
Unfortunately, the devil-may-care attitude, the tirades against the administrators and fellow players, the dabbles with performance enhancing substances and perhaps at times sheer misfortune combined and conspired to rob Akhtar and his die-hard fans at least a 100 more international wickets in both Test and one-day formats.
He would have been an instant hit in the Twenty20 World championship too, but he missed the first series for using the willow on Mohammad Asif instead of the cricket ball.
The next edition in 2009 again saw him missing from the action; he was perhaps banned, perhaps injured or perhaps partying somewhere with Asif. Whatever it may have been, most of Pakistan, including Younus Khan and his men, cared little about his absence when they lifted the trophy at Lords.
His autobiography, which was released a few months after his retirement, was rightly hyped but failed to live up to expectations. Across the border, though, Tendulkar’s one billion-strong fan club was hardly amused when Akhtar wrote that the greatest batsman of his generation was shaking in his legs when facing the speed demon on a Faisalabad dust bowl in 2006.
Despite the rollercoaster ride, the maverick nature of the man and his flowing locks made him one of the most popular players of his generation.
His legacy is best epitomised by the two sizzling yorkers which he delivered at the heart of Indian cricket in the epic Eden Gardens, Kolkata in 1999. The wall, Rahul Dravid, and the god of batting ,Tendulkar, had their stumps blown away and the deliveries, according to the late Tony Greig, were bowled at a million miles per hour.
That performance was arguably the moment that made Shoaib Akhtar.
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Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2014.
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