Shoaib Akhtar's two-year ban

The wings, they have been clipped

The sight of Shoaib spreading his wings in celebration of a kill will become the stuff of legend, a DVD classic, a spook story that mothers will tell their would-be superstar children

Kamran Abbasi

November 2, 2006

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Wings spread in celebration of a kill will become the stuff of legend © Getty Images
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Icarus flew too close to the sun but he had nothing on Shoaib Akhtar. The Rawalpindi Express, the world's fastest bowler, the world's flashiest cricketer. The man who flew too close to the sun too often has finally set fire to his wings and will fly no more. The sight of Shoaib spreading his wings in celebration of a kill will become the stuff of legend, a DVD classic, a spook story that mothers will tell their would-be superstar children: "Lose touch with your humility, your senses, and your mortality, and you will end up like him, the man from Rawalpindi, whose pride knew no bounds and whose stupidity knew no limits."

For let's be clear, this is no two-year ban for Shoaib Akhtar this is a life sentence. Pakistan cricket has lost its most exciting bowler and the world has lost a great entertainer. Worse still, with the ban on Shoaib and Mohammad Asif, Pakistan are no longer serious contenders for the next World Cup, unless one of their many reserves grows in stature by several miles over the next months. On the evidence of the Champions Trophy and this summer's tour of England, such an outcome is not worth a wager.

Shoaib began with great promise, a bug-eyed, floppy-haired, handy-bendy, lightning-fast showman. The run up was exhilarating, the effort exhausting. The ball was full, fast, and swinging. The celebration and the agony were sheer entertainment. The stress on his body and the recurrent injuries were evidence enough of the huge price he paid for becoming the world's first 100mph bowler. But despite his high speed Shoaib rarely struck you as an athlete who looked after his body -- although the drugs inquiry has revealed a bewildering cocktail of potions that Shoaib and his gormless advisers pumped into his body. A member of Mensa would have struggled to know what was in that cornucopia of medicines and bodybuilding pills.

Indeed, the first half of Shoaib's career was a bizarre obsession with breaking the 100mph barrier as if it mattered more to him than taking wickets

Fast life, fast bikes, and fast bucks were part of the package, the package that propelled him to break the speed limit also propelled him to madness elsewhere. Indeed, the first half of Shoaib's career was a bizarre obsession with breaking the 100mph barrier -- as if it mattered more to him than taking wickets -- interspersed with bad boy behaviour of rock star proportions. Once he had the record you hoped he would move on, and he did in a Shoaib kind of way, promising more control and less addiction to speed. Yet, right to the end, the injuries disturbed his career, the rumours of late-night partying -- to the detriment of his cricket -- hounded him, and the promise of going faster continued to spew from his lips.

Perhaps more than any Pakistan cricketer, Shoaib has divided opinion. Is he villain or hero? Is he master-blaster or high-class fool? The best guess is that he is probably both, a classic flawed genius, a unique talent balanced on the edge of ecstasy and damnation. Whatever he was, we must not forget that there were times when Shoaib was very very good, the most feared fast bowler on the planet, and as big a box-office draw as you could hope to find. Shoaib was good for cricket but his cricketing success ruined him.



The box-office draw © Getty Images
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Shoaib emerged under the shadow of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, but he held his hero to be Imran Khan. For much of his early career his selection was not automatic, Pakistan's legends were not willing to be dislodged and Shoaib at times complained that he was being wasted. But when he bowled Sachin Tendulkar first ball in Kolkata, you knew that the time of the Rawalpindi Express was about to come. And it did. The 1999 World Cup may have ended in calamity for Pakistan but it made Shoaib a superstar, propelling him to the first rank of the world's fast bowlers, and launching him into first place in the rankings for flamboyance. A sumptuous career beckoned, a destiny to be fulfilled.

It almost ended there though. Shoaib's action was beyond the comprehension of umpires and match referees and it was condemned as illegal. But the University of Western Australia showed that Shoaib's action was a quirk of nature, an extreme of hyperextension. It was enough to secure his return, and perhaps one of the most memorable moments in his career followed as an Australian crowd welcomed him back to international cricket with the warmest reception that a Pakistani may have ever received there. Australia, and the world, had been attracted to his corny "simply the best, better than the rest" rhetoric. But just like the accusations of partying without leave and of an unprofessional approach, just like the injuries and the fatigue, complaints about his action never subsided, even after the ICC changed its throwing laws.

In between all this, in between the rows with the cricket board and medical inquisitions, in between the bans for ball-tampering and unprofessional conduct, in between the Bollywood offers and the chicken dances, Shoaib remained a match-winner. The world's best teams and the world's best batting line-ups withered in the face of his thunderous assault. A few overs were all it took for Shoaib to transform the complexion of an innings, of a whole match. A few overs of pumping energy, supreme speed, and control could bring the best teams to their knees. Reverse swing was his inheritance. Short balls were inevitable. But his slower ball became a precious deadly weapon.



'A few overs of pumping energy, supreme speed, and control could bring the best teams to their knees' © Getty Images
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For my money, Shoaib's best performance was delivered in the murderous heat of Colombo, in the face of a hammering by an Australian team in its prime, Shoaib reduced one of the finest middle-orders in the history of Test cricket to rubble. Fifteen balls five wickets, including Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, and Adam Gilchrist. The Tendulkar-golden-duck series and last year's defeat of England occurred at both ends of his career and will rank as his most influential performances, each a memento of what might have been had injury, hyperextension, partying, irresponsibility, and Nandrolone not intervened.

My contention has always been that Shoaib is an outstanding talent whose failures are also the failures of management. I still believe that. But Pakistan's Icarus has crashed to Earth and we can't see his future for dust. His fans will be devastated, his enemies laughing. No kind of sporting hero takes drugs to enhance performance, and if Shoaib did that wittingly his reputation deserves to be dust too. Notwithstanding something extraordinary, this is the end of his star-crossed cricket career. What an almighty waste.

Kamran Abbasi is the editor of Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine

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Kamran Abbasi Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He was the first Asian columnist for Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com. Kamran is the international editor of the British Medical Journal. @KamranAbbasi

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