Shoaib Akhtar June 24, 2006

The agony, the ecstasy, the comedy

Being cricket's leading prima donna turned workaday-superstar is no teddy bear's picnic

Shoaib Akhtar: a disruptive prima donna to some, a sheer genius to others © AFP

Last October, I wrote about Shoaib Akhtar. He had turned 30 in August and the previous 18 months had been rocky. In April 2004, after the India series, he appeared before a medical commission, accused (by his captain and others) of lying about an injury. A new coach came, and issues soon did too. He went to Australia, lit up half the Test series, ignored the other half, and came back hamstrung, at odds with the establishment, and in a huff. He hadn't played for Pakistan since the turn of the year, missing two tours, one with an injury and one because he wasn't fit - wasn't committed, if you were Inzamam-ul-Haq. There was no kissing but Shoaib and Inzamam did make up during the Afro-Asian Cup (it served some purpose).

But Shoaib was about to be dissed as a disruptive prima donna mercenary by John Elliot, the Worcestershire chairman. He was about to be informed by Imran Khan that it was make-or-break time, he was about to be two days late for a training camp for the England series, Bob Woolmer was about to say of him, "If he wants to do it his way... he has to understand he might not get selected." So yes, a piece was needed, a contemplative one, asking where Shoaib stood and where he went from where he was. Nothing clear emerged.

Subsequently, he produced his most influential performance, against England, prompting Michael Vaughan to cite him as the difference between the two sides. I interviewed him soon after, at the start of the India series, a broader feature expanding on the original: Shoaib Akhtar at 30 - has he matured? He didn't do much against India - the pitches didn't help - but by series end he was stuck in another maelstrom of chucking. And he was injured again.

Play this 21-month period on endless loop, varying only the duration of highs and lows, over the 111 months since his debut. Injuries, suspensions, ball-tampering, lawsuits, dalliances in the woods of Lolly and Bolly, chucking, brash statements, saving Australian kids, extraordinary sporting feats: on repeat, in no order. Forget Kevin Pietersen, Shoaib is cricket's true rock star; how the f***, I asked myself, do you begin to comprehend him and his place?

You'd think meeting him might help, but I left with more questions than I arrived with - never a promising sign for a journalist. After his England triumph, critics answered, he might justifiably have felt vindicated, enough to gloat even. Instead, he was prickly, brooding though not rude, and on the back foot. I asked him about his injuries at one point and before I finished, he interrupted, Punjabi twang via Bradford and Australia, "Who didn't have injuries? Why am I always picked? I ask you - my answer is a question - who didn't have? Imran sat out injured, Wasim had groin troubles, Waqar, Mohammad Zahid, Mohammad Akram, Lee, Gillespie, McGrath, everyone. Why people are picking me?"

Injuries became commitment. "Eighty wickets in 14 Tests [77 in 17, actually] so I don't know what people are talking about. What type of commitment do they want? You want me to get 100 wickets in 10 Tests, is that what you want me to do? Those who question should go through their records. How many Tests have they won? Ab mein kya karoon agar log bolte hain? (What do I do if people talk?)"

I asked him about the obsession he had with speed in his early years and after he chided me for being loud (I was nervous), he interrupted again. "What do you mean? It's what I do."

"But there's more..."

"Like what?"

"Slower balls, bouncers, new-ball outswing. You are more than just pace," I defended him.

"It's not an obsession I have," he half-laughed, half-sighed. "It's a talent what I have. I don't know why people want me to slow down. Cut your run-up, do this, do that - that's the problem. I respect that people have an opinion and I don't disagree, but this is my life and I like to do what I like to do and sort it out. What I think, that is just for me." Chucking didn't even get a look in; "as if," he said with his eyebrows.

Okay. But he was probably born on the defensive, I figure. He was born with flat feet, so he couldn't walk till he was four. And since he began playing cricket, at 16, he has defended constantly; his action, his commitment, his attitude, his run-up (in June 1997, Peter Deeley wrote that Shoaib would learn the futility of a long run-up; eight years later, people still suggest as much), his fitness, his social life (in court for appearing at a fashion show), his statements (in court for saying Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were past it in 2003 - which they were), perceived slurs against his honour (An ESPN-Star presenter had compared him to a dog's tail - impossible to straighten), inquiries, commissions.

I brought up what I thought would be, in this mood, a touchy issue - his 30th. He had only 36 Tests by that age, having missed almost half the Tests - 71 - Pakistan had played since his debut. Of the 21 series he played in, he completed only seven. At 30, he had an undercooked career, I suggested. Yet instead of defending his record, he introspected about his role. "It's a heavy age, man. You wonder about yourself, life, what should be done, what shouldn't, what should've been done, what shouldn't have. It's heavy. It's not a life - people have better lives than this. They go through less pain than this."

He moved, unprompted, to responsibility, wistfully explaining his emergence as the Jason Gillespie of Pakistan's lower order (85 crucial runs against England over 298 even more crucial minutes; 92 runs against India, including an innings-saving 106-minute 45 at Karachi). "I never took batting seriously before. The last Test against England was really difficult. I got hit, took bruises, and obviously it's not my kind of job, but I wanted to set examples for youngsters - if I can do it then others can."

That transformation, albeit guarded, from maverick to role model of sorts, was the most significant aspect of his comeback; he was now one of the seniors, he was on the inner. His celebratory, winged run was into a team huddle rather than away from it. He cheered from long leg, he patted backs and offered tips. Rumour had it that he was praying with the team; he spoke publicly of how forgiving and united the side were; he refused to speak to the media. He described it like Morgan Freeman might, benevolent and wizened: "I can suggest; I can offer opinions; I can advise. If someone needs help, I am there - even without asking, I will help. I back up people going through bad phases. Ultimately you are the one who has to improve and prove yourself at the end of the day."

It may have been a rehearsed, clichéd introspection or it may have been spontaneous but in either case it caught me off guard and only illustrated how little we understand of Shoaib. This is not entirely our doing. Before I met him, I reasoned that either he hadn't been able to articulate himself or that he had never felt compelled to. I'm still not sure which.

We spoke of the turbulence before the England series, and of whether he needed to prove anything when he returned. Al Capone-style, he blurted, "I have nothing to prove to no one, apart from myself." A few minutes later, still on the topic, he u-turned, "I just had to sort my fitness - I had nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself."

I'll huff and I'll puff, and I will blow you away... © AFP

Perhaps he doesn't care if people get him. When I asked him, straight up, whether he was misunderstood and why, he regretted: "I am, I always have been. I don't care what people say or think. It's their life and this is mine. I'm not bothered and have never been. I don't take advice or listen to people - I only listen to Imran or other senior players." Is the reader getting a clear picture? No? Neither did I.

At a stretch, Bollywood actor Salman Khan's troubled hunk, heart-on-sleeve, good-and-bad-all-bared-for-public rogue evokes a compelling parallel to Shoaib's popular persona. Besides the body-building, both claim they are misunderstood. Both are abhorrent to certain, haughtily discerning tastes ("Oh, he's so cheap, just look at him"). The great unwashed, though, as Shoaib proves at stadiums and Salman at cinema halls, love them, warts and all. Their tragedies are lately synchronised (Salman's jail sentence came soon after the latest Shoaib chucking-injury imbroglio).

And following Shoaib's career-life, I find, often arouses emotions similar to those that Mike Tyson did. In hindsight, Tyson's melodramatic tale was destined for a sombre, tragic conclusion. People were hooked to the barbaric brilliance, the rapes, the assaults, the women, the championships. Watching Shoaib is similarly compelling, if only to see what drama he lurches into next, whether or not he emerges from it, whether or not he ever will.

Certainly, few personalities in cricket fragment opinion as sharply - maybe only Sourav Ganguly recently. Like with Ganguly, Shoaib's on-field career doesn't yet provide the protection afforded to yet another "difficult" man, Shane Warne. As a cricketer, any assessment, passing or final, will be coloured by doubts about his action - with Warne there is no such doubt. Shoaib has been publicly reported thrice - and cleared - but questioned privately many times more. Greg Chappell sparked the most recent inquisition, calling his action "seriously different", a coy comment for a supposedly straight-talking man. Michael Holding was less shy, suggesting that hyperextension was little more than babble that allowed the ICC to let big names like Shoaib get away with chucking.

Innuendo clouds the situation. Umpires are unwilling to call Shoaib (though one expressed his concern privately during the Faisalabad Test against India recently - incidentally, just before Chappell's comments). Batsmen are allegedly concerned about the danger of his faster - read chucked - deliveries, Indian reporters revealed, though only after Shoaib had bullied Sachin Tendulkar at Faisalabad. Also allegedly, the ICC sent a videotape to the Pakistan board after the India series, highlighting one passage in which they felt his action raised worries. "Get it fixed," was their message supposedly, "before we call him." Shoaib missed the ODIs against India, and the tour of Sri Lanka, ostensibly so that he could tend to his injuries. Many Pakistani journalists winked that he was getting his action fixed.

The only problem is, of course, that all this is officially denied and nothing can be confirmed, which leaves Shoaib dangling between villain and hero, cheat and champ. A worse situation you cannot imagine and frustratingly - or admirably - he refuses to say anything. He does have a freakish elbow that bends both ways and he is officially, if ambiguously, cleared. Whether or not he is a chucker is, as ever with Shoaib (and the issue itself), not so simple to answer. Some combination of biomechanics, doctors and the ICC might do one day, but it will tar him forever. For those who can - or care to - look beyond it, he is a special bowler, one who only conforms to Gideon Haigh's description of "pantomime fast bowler" in the drama he can impart to any match situation. His career is startlingly thin - only 42 Tests over near nine years. He doesn't have 200 Test wickets, which makes assessments a little rushed and incomplete. But his own analysis - that he has become more rounded and dangerous over the last three or four years - is key. "I look through more videos of my bowling, to see how I bowl best and how to bowl to certain batsmen. I make mistakes and not every ball is going to be right but I know my plans to batsmen, I know the pitch, how batsmen play. I've developed more in the last three years."

Matthew Hayden, whose happiness he messed with on Pakistan's 2004-05 tour, before Flintoff and gang did likewise, will testify to this. Ditto Marcus Trescothick and the rest of his team, all outwitted. The slower ball? More misunderstanding, mate: "People don't know me. They're saying it's new but I've bowled it for years; it's just loopier now." Alec Stewart, duped leg-before by a 30mph change in pace at Lord's in 2001, says aye.

Wickets weren't forthcoming against India, but Shoaib lurked in their heads throughout, bouncing the great and good, intelligently picking up wickets at Karachi. By then, he had played two full consecutive Test series - a first. Despite "not playing for records", he isn't slow to point out an impressive one since 2001. It's only 27 Tests, but he has taken 120 wickets, at under 22, with fabulous strike-rates (under 39). He's done it against everyone - save India - and everywhere. Over his career, he has taken wickets every 45.3 balls, the 12th best ever - among those who have bowled 2000 balls or more. Of the 11 above and six below him, only Waqar Younis maintained it over more Tests.

Ultimately he upholds what is the most challenging standard to bear in Pakistan - fast bowling. It can't be, and hasn't been, a stroll. We demand more from our fast men, for as a tradition it has been as much the preserve of Pakistan as of Australia and West Indies. To be the latest face of that brings its own pressures. Whatever he is or has done, his uniqueness warrants appreciation. He's not Imran, Wasim or Waqar. He doesn't do reverse swing quite so readily, and with his slingy action you wonder whether he chooses not to use such historically trademarked weapons. Maybe he can't do it on demand; it's hardly the most controlled science. Different methods have produced different results but, operating in his own time and space, Shoaib has scripted magnificence, turned matches; the 1999 World Cup, Colombo against Australia 2002-03, Kolkata and the big two in 1998-99, Wellington 2003-04, England 2005-06. There's more and it's not a poor tale to tell from 42 Tests.

Shoaib, in any capacity, always attracts the shutterbugs © AFP

Hero, misunderstood, freak, villain, loudmouth, draamey-baaz, chucker, crowd-puller, match-winner; Shoaib is, and will be, many different things to many different people (and sometimes all of them to one person). All of it and none of it is true. For what it's worth, above all the bullshit that it is my duty to record, I will remember him at Iqbal Stadium against England last winter. I tried hard to remain a journalist, an observer, but he sucked me - and others - in over a five-over spell, after lunch on the third day. The match, and 18,000 spectators with it, was dozing when he started. Instantly, the ambience switched. Suddenly, it became raw; people stirred as he bowled a spell where every ball demanded the utmost attention. He began with an old ball, 90-plus mph, and as he took the new ball, his run-up became a naked, burly sprint. He upped the pace, and the crowd their noise, with every step of his run.

Two wickets were felled, and what wickets they were: last year's most exciting player, Kevin Pietersen, hooked a six to reach his century but was beaten by a quicker bouncer next. Freddie "the world's best player" Flintoff, had his bat cracked and then his stumps by one at 91mph. I thought then, and still do now, that that was Shoaib as originally conceived, scalping players big enough to matter to him, joking with the captain and players, rousing and jostling the crowd, chirping at batsmen, sending them off, all eyes only on him, at the centre of the celebrations, the stadium, and all attention. A brief glimpse, I think, of him in his element.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo