October 17, 2015

The social regeneration of Shoaib Malik

Once confrontational and inarticulate, he turned on the charm and revamped his image - online first, and then on the field

Double-century? Time to be humble and thank everyone for their support © Getty Images

It came at three in the morning, in all caps. "A person who don't respect his seniors will definitely don't respect his parents for sure!" It was followed by two emoji characters - a thumbs-up sign and a smirking face.

It was perhaps a first for Pakistani-cricketer Twitter. Many have taken to the platform to rail against the board, journalists and the like, but Faisal Iqbal's subtweet - aimed at Mohammad Amir - was a rare example of a cricketer (sub)tweeting against a fellow player. Earlier, Amir had allegedly abused Faisal on the pitch after the latter had provoked him. Within hours of the story breaking, Amir's coach was tweeting to journalists, revealing the saltier details of the exchange online.

Perhaps this escalation was inevitable. Twitter has increasingly become a place where Pakistani cricketers are becoming comfortable. It is particularly popular among the younger generation, which has grown up with it and other social media. Many up-and-coming players often post selfies from the National Cricketing Academy and after practice, along with other mundanities. Injured players, or those on the fringes, also increasingly use it to stay within the public consciousness. The older generation has struggled more, and the internet is awash with screenshots of Afridi telling fans they are ugly and Hafeez promising boys their girlfriends would leave them if they let them talk to him.

Umar Akmal's Twitter career has largely gone the same way as his cricketing one - in both areas, he showed immense natural talent. His outrageous selfies (topless while eating grapes was a running theme) and penchant for the bizarre meant that Twitter should have come naturally to him, yet he's only ever shown brief bursts of what he could have been.

Now his tweets were optimised with strategic hashtags and a lot more polish. Soon, his recharged fan base was trending #WeWantMalikBack and there was a distinct crescendo that built up his return to the national side

Ahmed Shehzad, on the other hand, Akmal's contemporary in cricket and selfies, has taken the platform by storm. As someone noted, during the final 12 hours of a major by-election campaign in the heart of Lahore recently, almost all of Twitter's top trends in Pakistan were to do with the polls - except for #AskAhmad, Shahzad's Twitter Q&A session.

Along with his good looks, a very publicly affectionate relationship with the country's biggest star, and a healthy run of form in the Test side, Shehzad has impeccable understanding of the Pakistani popular psyche. He picked up on the surge in the army's popularity, he's always on point with his Islamic calendar greetings, and he is forever thanking his elders and whatnot. Indeed, the only man who outdoes him at this game is the one who has redrawn what the potential of a Twitter account can really be.

Six years ago Shoaib Malik was sacked as captain after the board called him "aloof" and a "loner", and by then he had had several abrasive confrontations with the media. A year later, he even underwent a short-lived ban, earned for infighting. The numbers he put up after that were appalling. Last year, a fine run in various T20 leagues and a charming run of appearances on various TV shows landed him in the World T20 team, but he failed there too.

It was around then that @realshoaibmalik was truly born. It began with a change in the bio - an urban-slang sort of write-up that mentioned both his patriotism as well as him being "dapper to the D". Malik had become far more articulate with the media since his captaincy, but now his tweets were optimised with strategic hashtags and a lot more polish. Soon his recharged fan base was trending #WeWantMalikBack and there was a distinct crescendo that built up his return to the national side.

Malik went from socially awkward to social-media-savvy in the space of a few years © AFP

Marking his return with a hundred, Malik was among the top scorers in a batting line-up that swatted aside first Zimbabwe and then Sri Lanka. Each performance was accompanied by tweets that praised his team-mates, thanked God and his fans, and always came with #iBleedGreen. By the end, some journalists were accurately predicting what his post-match tweets would be like. The really viral moment came when he single-handedly resurrected a lost chase against Zimbabwe only to be defeated by fading light. The moment was spoofed by a popular comedian, and Malik's super-positive, super-humble tweet swept the internet. In between, there were also immensely popular dubsmash videos featuring his sport-star wife, who is also having a superb sporting run. Whereas once Malik snapped at journalists and asked them if they were "sitting in his heart", now he knew how to defuse any curveball thrown at him.

When an injury to Azhar Ali meant that he rapidly ascended to the Test side as well, it seemed there was no stopping him. His rival for that position in the side, Fawad Alam, has spent the last few years building up one of Pakistan's best first-class records ever, but also failing to develop a Twitter presence. The only few times he flitted into the public conscience of late was a rare set of failures against Bangladesh, and more recently, a dropped chance off Alastair Cook in the ongoing Test when he came on the field as a substitute.

Unlike Fawad, Malik has made sure to grab every opportunity he was given. Despite the magnificent performance of his Twitter account and his PR machinery in general, it would have come to nought if Malik hadn't put up the runs. Regardless of the opposition or the conditions, an average of 100 in ODIs and a double-century on return to Tests are tough to argue against. And even before that, Malik had racked up world-class numbers in the various domestic T20 leagues he played in.

But what really brought it all together was a public image designed for the modern age, and his success - going from relative obscurity to star of the year - means that the Pakistani Twitterverse has just entered a new dimension.

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. @karachikhatmal