KARACHI: The Rawalpindi Express, world’s fastest bowler and the ‘outlaw’ of Pakistan cricket, Shoaib Akhtar, in a recent interview to ESPNcricinfo’s monthly online magazine The Cricket Monthly revealed the secrets of how he reached the pinnacle of fast bowling.
He started with answering the question of what pushed him to become a fast bowler.
“I wanted to copy someone. Waqar (Younis). Imran (Khan). Wasim (Akram). That’s what you call inspiration. Then it became my passion. Then it became my madness. Then in that madness I found the method to become the fastest. Then in that method I found another method of being the smartest. Then I found another method where I was the most unfit fast bowler. I realised whatever time I have, I am not going to slow down. I am going to bowl as quick as possible. I used to find ways to increase my passion and my madness to bowl fast.
“I used to bowl in the galli-mohallas [streets and neighbourhoods], copying Waqar’s action [demonstrates running in with his little finger on the left hand hidden;Waqar Younis’ little finger was amputated].
“Inspiration is important. Talent always follows heroes. Inspiration drives you forward, and then it becomes madness, and then you find a method in that madness. I found that method, which is to bowl quick every day. And knowing fully well that you are going to get unfit, and that you have only five to six years in your knees and you want to bowl fast as long as you can bowl. The method to bowling quick is to enjoy it. The roar of the crowd always used to drive me nuts. Whether it was a boo or a roar to cheer me up, that crowd inspired me most of the time to bowl quick. I used to find a reason to bowl quick. ‘I am feeling good today, I am in a good mood today, I am going to bowl quick’.”
He also revealed the amount of pain he had to go through to bowl fast, very fast.
“I used to crawl to my bathroom every day of my career. I used to limp out of my bed. I can’t remember a day I didn’t have pain in my knees for the last 18 years.”
And what was the motivation for all this? He said, ” The big star on your chest. The Pakistan star. It was the biggest motivation for me. [When I was selected] I slept in the kit, in the Pakistan colours, for three nights. I didn’t want to take it off. I felt so comfortable and so cosy, I just wanted to be in that kit for the rest of my life. Minor things that made me feel happy were the little smiles on people’s faces when they saw me.
“Most of the times you are entertaining yourself. Being a fast bowler is the best thing in cricket. You are running in, the crowd is behind you and you enjoy it. The heart pumps more blood and you take in more oxygen. Half the time I was entertaining myself. Because I was loving myself out there because of who I was. I enjoyed a lot.
“When the opposition is strong, or in front of a full house, you are charged twice as much. I would be most charged up against Australia. Gilly [Adam Gilchrist] at number seven, and you are tired, and he lashes at you. He could be beaten by the same delivery and hit a similar delivery. The best idea was to get him out early. The best idea was to bowl round the stumps and reverse it into him. Otherwise he could hit almost everything else.”
And what did he enjoy the most about bowling fast? The express paced bowler had an intriguing answer.
“To be able to run in without pain. With rhythm like a smooth river. There have been only a few days in my life when I felt like that. And I just wanted to bowl and bowl and bowl all day.
“And then stumps tumbling around. The sound of the ball hitting the stumps. You learn all this swing, seam and bouncers later. The first thing you want to do is to hear the ball on the stumps. That yorker hitting the stumps. That smile, that pleasure it gave me, I can never get it from anywhere. That is the smile from inside. I am on the top of the world.
He also talked about how he regretted hitting his good friend Gary Kirsten in a Test in 2003.
“I felt bad. He was a friend of mine.”
“In 1995, I played a four-day game against Gary Kirsten’s side, and I went up to him and said, ‘Do you think I can be Waqar one day?’ I hadn’t made my debut then. He said ‘yes’. In broken English I asked him again, ‘Do you think I have it?’ He said ‘yes, I had it’.”
Shoaib also commented on the high he got from the fear in the mind of the batsmen.
“The high was not the fear. The high was that I was able to bowl quicker than anyone else.
“On a good day I can do almost anything. That was the high. I can hit people at will. I can get people out at will. I can fool around with them at will.”
Then he told a trade secret that a lot of fast bowlers never knew he applied to be able to bowl fast.
“Let me tell you a trade secret. When I pitched the ball up, I wasn’t that quick. This is around 1997, 1998. I had to develop pace. I had to lengthen my arm.
“What I did was take a brick and work with that. Then I found heavier balls. Then I found out that if I bowled with heavier balls in practice, I could increase my pace. I started using custom-made balls that were thrice as heavy as the actual ball. I started bowling with those, putting them up to the stumps as fast as I could.
“I started with a three-pace run-up, and then kept going back and back gradually until I reached the top of my normal run-up. I realised that by doing that I developed muscles in my shoulder, my glutes and my back. The human mind is such a freak, it can tell your body to do anything. Apart from that my training helped me a lot to increase my pace.
When asked about his training before a match he uncovered a fascinating yet painful routine.
“First I used to limp out of my bed. I used to crawl to the bathroom. Get into the hot tub. Put my Tubigrips on my knees. Used to rub the muscles. Then get on a bicycle for 30 minutes.
“This is the training people never saw me do before a match. Leg extensions. Three hundred, to get them going. Yeah, almost 300. Every day. Get them loose. Leg curls. Then a bit of wing work. Then get into a pool. Then get back into the hot tub. Then massage myself again. Then go to the ground. I used to do long stretches. I used to stretch a lot.
“Then when I was ready to bowl the first ball I used to charge in. I never used to hold back. It just felt right.
“After I knew I was not going to stay fit for a long period, I thought I might as well rush to fame. Quick fame. And as long as I play for Pakistan, win Test matches. Be remembered as the best strike bowler.”
He also talked about his famous strappy shoes he used to wear.
“My shoes were super-expensive. They were thousand quid a pair. They were so stabilised, they gave me all the support I needed. I used the best technology available to manage with my knees.”
After that, came in the talk about the passion one needs to be a fast bowler and who could tell you better about it then Shoaib himself.
“You have to be a bit abnormal to be a fast bowler. This is not normal work for the body. Pivoting and twisting your body when running in at full sprint is not normal for the body. For that you have got to be abnormal. You call it abnormal, I call it extraordinary.
“When you know you can pull it off and not many others can, that was the great thing. When you can swing your arm quicker than anyone else in the world, that gives you the joy.
“You have to be mad, yes. There are 100,000 people at Eden Gardens and it is early in your career, and to run in and bowl fast, obviously you have to be junooni. If you are not junooni, how will you bowl? You have to shut everything else off. I used to see only the batsman, I used to narrow my vision to just the batsman.”
When asked if you need to be angry to be a fast bowler, he said, “No. It’s just a tough job. You are running in, your heartbeat is 180-plus, at least mine used to be. My body temperature would always be 102-103 when bowling. That temperature, you would go to hospital. In that temperature if a guy hits you for four, do you expect me to blow kisses? At that time when you are huffing and puffing and someone hits you for four, you will lose it. This is not a normal job.”
Answering the question of how much time it took Shoaib to learn the attitude of a fast bowler, he said he learned it from street cricket.
“No, I learned that in street cricket. That is the good thing about Pakistan fast bowlers. They learn everything on the street. They are so tough and rugged. They don’t care about anything else. ‘I am quick, face me’.
“The street-schooling process teaches you the attitude. We are thinking fast bowlers, but we are not the best managers of our lives. We are not the smartest people. We are very good at what we do, but the rest, we don’t know what to do with it.”
Shoaib also talked about his off-field relationship with cricketers.
“Off the field I was the friendliest cricketer. I have only ever fought once. With Asif. He pushed me over the edge. I never behaved insultingly with my seniors.”
On a concluding note, he talked about how his own teammates would like him to not hit them in the nets.
“Yousuf used to give me a lot of massages before the nets. Shoaib, mujhe maari na, yaar[Shoaib, don’t hit me]. I used to get them to do things for me before the nets. Nets used to be full on, but I have never ever hit anyone in the nets. Except for Saeed Anwar, who once got hit badly on the elbow.
“The best I have seen in the nets is Inzamam [ul Haq]. I was the quickest but he had time when he played. I used to make sure when someone batted against me, he got good practice out of me. When they are facing my pace, they will have a better chance of performing when they face lesser pace.”
You can read the complete interview here