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Fast bowlers....they are like the reflective eyes of a predating carnivore crossing your nocturnal highway in the distance. They declare themselves unabashed, as if the rest of the team is selected to support them. They ask for attention like a newborn placed in a damp cradle. They charge in, they rant, they sulk, they go over the top, they exult as if there is no tomorrow – and they expect to be loved for it! These hot-headed guys, blessed with pace generating mechanism running on fuel supplied from a colossal ego, can be as terrible to the thin-skinned folk in the dressing room as they are abominable to the opposition players quivering at the crease.
Simply put, they like to play king and, insufferably for some victims, are often allowed that. Rightly so, to be fair (or unfair – who cares!). For they often have what others only fantasise of having – an ability to strike like the king cobra; when the victim knows it is generally too late. None does any of these better than Shoaib Akhtar though.
A star was born when Hurricane Akhtar castled Indian batting mainstays Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off successive deliveries at the Eden Gardens during the inaugural Asian Test championship match in 1999. He made his mark the previous year when his team visited the land of White Lightning. But it was against the archrivals of Pakistan that Shoaib Akhtar chose to announce himself. Thus started his arc-lit journey on both facets of the now-famed Shoaib persona – a crushing performance in the first innings to redeem his team, and a part in the bitter controversy involving Sachin’s run-out in the second. Shoaib Akhtar had arrived with genius and ruckus.
Shoaib’s potency as a strike bowler was never in question even during his darkest days in the past couple of months. Leaving alone lesser sides, he is the only bowler besides Shane Bond and Anil Kumble to trouble Australia in all conditions. Love him or hate him, he has done so in both forms of the game, albeit sporadically. And they don’t grudge that other genius Lara the off-and-on bit.
The Shoaib of early days used to be a skipper’s delight. No amount of bad press can ever change that truth. In match after exacting match he kept going for the opponents’ jugular and the telecaster’s speed guns without holding back. He was exemplary in the 1999 World Cup. Even when his team set a paltry target for Australia in the most lopsided World Cup final, Shoaib came out with all guns blazing and continued showing positive body language even when his peerless skipper Wasim Akram had obviously given it up.
Another of Shoaib’s characteristics emphasising his place in the hierarchy is his un-playability while in a purple patch. During crucial passages of play this longhaired hulk can make the opponent batsmen feel like tail-enders. A tri-series league match at Sharjah in early 2000 saw Shoaib Akhtar knock the stuffing out of an imposing South African middle order cruising to another victory.
With characteristic flair he knocked off three vital wickets in one deciding over to help his team defend a sub-200 total easily. Poor Klusener! After that fabulous previous year in both forms of the game he must have been left flummoxed to decipher what yet on the earth was left to conquer him like that…well it was a Shoaib special, never mind! Shoaib went off the field with a niggle for a while only to come sprinting back and hover about the edge of the boundary, asking to be let in while his skipper Moin chose not to risk it before the final.
Allegations of throwing flew past Shoaib’s head like fruits whizzed around Brett Lee’s but the one thing that his hyper-extended elbow never threw in was the towel. Even by fast bowlers’ standards he was errant in his ways with the team, but he was certainly not beyond redemption. His heart was found to be at the right place early in his career, and it almost was a personal satisfaction to see glimpses of that old Shoaib in the recent series win against Englishmen.
Shoaib is arguably the best that the world today has in his chosen area, though some others are not that far behind. And all should literally be happening out there at the 22 yards if a delectable Brett Lee, a sustainable Shane Bond and an intelligible Mohammad Sami join the redoubtable Shoaib Akhtar in the fastest and most enjoyable race on offer in the world of cricket.
Shoaib is going to be late, very late at the entrance to the hall of eternal bowling greatness. During the rest of his career he has to bowl a lot in the corridor of uncertainty in order to render a passage to that corridor a certainty. But at least he woke up at the warning bell that was meant to rattle him out of an unwarranted mid-career slumber while crossing thirty. Now he would be making up for lost time by inducing his lethal swing to be late. Very late.
The Ebb of Sho-aib is over and done with, while the Show is about to begin. Fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen, for it is time to follow the ‘pindi express back to the end of his long run-up, cheer him, egg him on, and derive the greatest joy from witnessing such a one take off like the Golden Eagle every now and then while mending a few hyper-extended batting averages out there. He has done enough to deserve this, and now we can trust him to do more for the timber business – and biomechanical analysts maybe, to a lesser degree.
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