Sri Lanka v Pakistan, 1st ODI, Asia Cup, Dambulla June 15, 2010

Shoaib Akhtar makes a respectable return

The biggest point of conversation going into the match was which Shoaib Akhtar would turn up; as it transpired, he settled for the middle ground between the extremes only he is capable of

The biggest point of conversation going into the match was which Shoaib Akhtar would turn up after more than a year away from the international spotlight - the pacy and lethal Rawalpindi Express of his heyday or the erratic train-wreck of more recent vintage. Shoaib settled for the middle ground between the two extremes, finishing with respectable figures of 3 for 41.

He was the quickest bowler of the match, peaking at 148kph, and looked a few kilograms lighter, but his fitness levels were clearly short of the standards required for international cricket. His bowling was disciplined and he hurried the batsmen, but he was ponderous in the field and sought refuge in the dressing-room after two of his spells.

Handed the new ball by Shahid Afridi, Shoaib was at his best in the opening burst before starting to show signs of fatigue. Upul Tharanga was rarely at ease against his accurate, back-of-length bowling, and was generally content to tuck the ball for singles. Tillakaratne Dilshan was more adventurous, looking to cut and pull Shoaib, only to beaten by the pace or edge the ball, once just short of slips and nearly back onto the stumps off the very next delivery.

Towards the end of that four-over spell, Shoaib made the breakthrough - getting Tharanga to top-edge to first slip. The goodly crowd that had come in for the tournament opener wasn't treated to the famous 'airplane' celebration - zipping around in glee with his arms outstretched. Instead it was a far more subdued Shoaib on display; he just stood still after completing his follow-through, arms spread out and waiting for his team-mates to encircle him.

If expectations were raised by the new-ball spell, they were tempered by what followed. The Shoaib run-up remains as splendidly long as it was in his pomp but he rarely steamed in, usually just jogging up to the stumps. The walk back to the mark was painfully slow, a mournful trudge. As early as his second spell of two overs, he was hobbling on the field, grimacing and with hands on hips.

By the third spell, he was reduced to halving his run-up, something which he adamantly refused to do even after being asked to do so by former coach Bob Woolmer and captain Inzamam-ul-Haq ("Can a plane take off without a run-up?", he had asked then).

It looked bleak for Shoaib, but as usual there is no simple script when he is involved. Even with the curtailed approach he struck. Chamara Kapugedera carved to Umar Akmal at point, and two overs later Farveez Maharoof fiddled outside off to give Shoaib his third wicket.

Pakistan coach Waqar Younis said that Shoaib wasn't near top-gear yet but felt he would get better with more matches under his belt. "I think he's still got a long way to go," Waqar said after the match. "He's picked up three wickets which is good for us, still he's not there where we really want to see. He's still not the Shoaib Akhtar we want him to be. He probably needs a couple of more games."

That Shoaib is still on the international scene itself is something of a miracle. After innumerable bust-ups with all-comers - fans, team-mates, the PCB, you name it - and prolonged battles with injuries, he has been written off plenty of times. But in the world of U-turns that is Pakistan cricket, another cycle of upheavals combined with a decent run in the domestic one-day Pentagular has brought him right back.

If Shoaib can retain some of the old magic, in the company of Mohammad Aamer, Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul, Pakistan will have a fast-bowling battery that rivals the best in the world. Also, at a time when teams are packed with line-and-length merchants, cricket can ill-afford to lose a bowler of genuine pace.

Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo

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