Pakistan cricket April 10, 2013

The mismanaged showman

Osama Baig
What does a live falcon show in the Arab desert tell us about Shoaib Akhtar's career?

I'm sitting on top of a small sand dune in a remote part of Ras Al Khaimah in UAE, waiting for a falcon show to begin. The falconer comes up, with the falcon fastened to his gloved hand by a few hooks on her leg. He explains how the falcon is capable of reaching speeds in excess of 300 kph. A friend quips "Yeh to Shoaib Akhtar ki ball se bhi zyada tez jati hai" ("The falcon flies faster than Shoaib Akhtar bowls.") Shoaib Akhtar?

The falconer unhooks the falcon. Freed, she stands perched on the glove and surveys the crowd gathered round her for a few seconds while also giving the crowd an opportunity to watch her closely; clearly she's into showmanship. She takes off. The falconer proceeds down the sand dune to a clearing some distance away, and pulls out a length of rope at the end of which are quail feathers rolled into a ball. He swings them over his head like a lasso trying to get the attention of the now quite far away flying falcon. Sure enough, the falcon spots the quail feathers and starts her dive. She's getting bigger as she's getting closer, and seems to be getting faster too. And just as she is sure to grab the quail feather ball, the falconer pulls it away: she misses and whizzes past him.

It's at this point where I get an image of Shoaib Akhtar charging in, off his insanely long run. Getting bigger as he's getting closer, hurling down a ball which rips past the batsman. I never got an opportunity to watch him live.

The falcon flies back to her original far away position even though the falconer had started swinging his rope right after she missed. The falcon wants to charge back again. She doesn't want to disappoint the expectant watching crowd by diving from a shorter starting point, and sneakily snatching the quail feathers. Thrill is an important part of her image; she isn't going to give it up.

She misses again, and then again. Finally the falconer calls out for what was going to be the last time, and she doesn't miss. I walk closer. She's panting quite heavily. The falconer had let her get the quail feathers in her fourth go so she could stop. He understands that she can only be allowed to hunt in short spells. It's demanding on her to put so much effort, and since it isn't in her nature to back away and stop, her caretaker would have to intervene.

Show over, the falconer puts on a hood over the falcon's head. Can she see through it? "No," the falconer explains. "After all the excitement, the hood helps the falcon calm down. They can injure themselves, you know."

I start leaving. Everyone's excitedly taking about the show. I'm gutted though, for this isn't Shoaib Akhtar. He wasn't always used in short bursts. The effects of his craft on his body weren't always considered. He was never protected from hurting himself.

If only this falconer from a remote area in Ras Al Khaimah had been consulted by the Pakistani cricket management, the country's fast bowling situation could have been slightly better.

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