August 13, 2013

The sound of Shoaib

He stirred something deep within us, something born of our basic emotions, something that is part of the essential appeal of all sport

Shoaib: primal appeal © AFP

Recently the Pakistani journalist Hassan Cheema wrote an expansive, evocative essay on Shoaib Akhtar. The piece was a personal recounting of Hassan's memories of one of the country's greatest enigmas.

Like most sober reflections on Shoaib, this one too was etched with disappointment, and it's not difficult to see why.

For starters, Shaiby played shockingly few Tests, 46, which makes it difficult to statistically justify considering him amongst the capital-G greats. Moreover, only his strike rate of 45.7 places him among Pakistan's top three pace bowlers in Tests - in every other respect he's closer to Sarfraz Nawaz and Umar Gul than to Imran or the two Ws. In fact, when accounting for spinners, his record barely places him in the all-time top ten of Pakistani bowlers.

But Hassan doesn't even touch Shaiby's statistics in his essay, focusing instead on what Shaiby meant for a fan, and what he came to mean for his team: "Shoaib became a symbol for everything that was wrong [with Pakistan cricket]: the self-centred, short-termist, plan-less attitude that the nation believed in - the idea that doing things on a whim was somehow a strategy for long-lasting success."

It's not an entirely unfair charge - Shaiby was at the centre of Pakistan cricket's most torrid decade, often both cause and consequence of its myriad problems. It could take days to list all his indiscretions, but curfew-breaking, habitual lying, and a notorious sense of victimhood were all essential parts of Shaiby's repertoire. Now that he is an author and a TV analyst, his senses of delusion and denial seem to be at an all-time high.

So if one is to accept all this about him, as I clearly had, then why care about his legacy? Why disagree with Hassan about Shaiby not being a hero? Why feel the need to prove that despite all this, there was a reason Shaiby mattered?

My attempt at answering these questions began with trying to understand the idea of a "hero". I wondered whether too many fans were lost in a futile search for a messiah who would magically deliver them from their anguish-riddled lives through the force of his actions.

Clearly Shaiby wasn't a messianic hero but perhaps he was a classical one, like Achilles - a murderous, self-obsessed prima donna with an injury problem. But Achilles had a much better track record, and despite his injuries, he did show up for the big games.

I tried to focus on anti-heroes next, who according to the crowd-sourced knowledge of Wikipedia, are popular in postmodern works. But the examples cited were Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins and Batman. Try as I might, there was no Shaiby here either.

I gave up on heroes, feeling that while there was something heroic about Shoaib, I wasn't sure if that was everything.

My next attempt involved music. Now those of you not from the subcontinent might not know this, but at Partition in 1947, India and Pakistan divided up commercial films and pop music the same way they divided batting and bowling. Each side got mastery at one and misery in the other.*

Since music is central to Pakistani culture, I figured I could maybe find an analogy that would help answer my question. A Twitter conversation made me consider something intriguing to compare Shaiby with - the song "Aadat" and its singer, Atif Aslam.

Like Shoaib in Kolkata, the release of "Aadat" was a generation-defining moment. The driver of our university's bus got rid of his beloved tape deck that year. (You need to know of the commitment Pakistani drivers display for their music-playing instruments to truly appreciate the significance of that action.) The reason he did so was that for a stretch of three weeks, all the students forced him to play tapes with only "Aadat" recorded on them, on repeat, for the entirety of the several-hour journey every single morning and afternoon.

Like Shaiby, "Aadat" marked the end of an era, one defined by two towering giants of Pakistani music - the bands Vital Signs and Junoon. Like Shaiby, "Aadat" and Atif weren't as refined as the former or as furious as the latter (how's my two W's analogy going, by the way?), but like them they were truly transcendental.

Shaiby and "Aadat" seemed to express innately Pakistani sentiments - of revelling in self-despair, yet being unafraid of belting out the most tuneless notes as long as they came from the heart. And much like they did Shaiby, all sorts of critics and connoisseurs absolutely detested Atif and his songs, famously disparaging and mocking his voice.

Unlike Shaiby, Atif took "Aadat" as a springboard to a hugely successful, and of late impressively versatile, career. Atif and "Aadat" were even more broken than Shaiby's hyperextending, flat-footed, knee-busted body, but they went on to enjoy success Shaiby should have had but didn't.

So no-go on the music scene either. But then, out of nowhere, the answer came to me.

My wife - who is myopic in a literal sense (unlike Shaiby) and has an eyesight of -9.5 - was talking about how during the years when her vision was rapidly deteriorating, she had trained herself to function without her eyes, as she feared she was going blind. I began to think about experiencing cricket without sight, and thus tried to reduce the experience to its sounds.

And it's in sound - that oft-ignored, intrinsically essential aspect of the spectacle - that Shaiby comes truly alive.

His long, long run-up meant that the crowds in the NSK or Gaddafi (and in one memorable game, Eden Gardens) would always be creating a wall of noise by the time he reached the crease. He would then let out a guttural yell of his own - one he begun to use as a smokescreen in his later years. That yell would almost always be followed by aural drama - the oohs of a play-and-miss, the yelps after a cracking Sehwag six, the exultation of joy that followed wickets, or the comically melodramatic send-offs reserved for the Haydens of the world.

The reason Shaiby created this buzz was because he worked by a logic that wasn't always applicable to the match situation. He was forever trying for the Hollywood delivery, forever assaulting the speed gun, forever yelling out a word or a dare or a curse. These aspects can't really be captured by statistics, but more importantly, they don't lose their visceral appeal even when you account for the context of Shaiby's underwhelming performances and record.

Of course, these very same characteristics were maddeningly infuriating when he was being detrimental to the team. But we could appreciate them because they resided in a realm beyond the compulsions of the competition.

The kinds of things Shaiby did are part of the essential joy of sport; they are the reason we get excited and addicted as fans in the first place. He is not the pinnacle of what cricketers can achieve, but without players like him to reel us in in the first place, many of us wouldn't be interested in knowing what those pinnacles are.

That was the reason why understanding how Shaiby mattered required thinking of the heroic, required recalling an iconic song, required reducing his experience to sound. Even when experienced solely by our ears, Shaiby stirs something deep within us, something born of our basic emotions. We get distracted by our own perceptions of these emotions, judging them as positive or negative and hence using them to draw conclusions about Shaiby. But that's missing the point - Shaiby was one of those rare things that made us realise why it was thrilling to be alive.

* This is not a history essay, so please don't get all pedantic up in here and start destroying my gloriously pithy generalisation.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here