All you need is pace
Whatever else is true of Shoaib Akhtar, this much cannot be denied that he has a way. It is the global way of celebrities; the look at you which isn't really at you, sunglasses indoors, looking tired and refreshed, the slow, deliberate, tilted walk; the conversation littered with arbitrary pauses, sentences that often droop away. Animals are devouring one another on the box before he switches to the 37th President of the US. "Nixon," he breathes, randomly.
His jeans hug him, as does the T-shirt, and he just looks more than you or I. Only a photograph of him felling Brian Lara in the 2004 Champions Trophy ("greatest regret, it was the only time I played him") gives away his occupation. That he is neither film nor rock star needs reminding.
Even in the afternoon curtained dimness of his Lahore home, Shoaib has a new glow about him. He's leaner, there is less baggage under the eyes, around the face. If there is a paunch, it is shy of public appearances. More hair volume and it could be 1999. He has played a grand total of five days of international cricket in the past year, which might explain something. But he is fresh in body, and it emerges over the course of lunch, a TV interview with an Indian channel and general chatter, and in mind as well. Just as well, because around him there is darkness.
Doping, death, a World Cup disaster and the general introspection of the thirties have made for a curious philosophical slant in him. The talk begins with Indian and Pakistani calamity. "You can't sow sugarcane and expect to reap rice," he begins, Sidhu-esque. He ends Camus-esque, "We have a knowledge of everything but knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is doing. Being practical takes a lot of emotion."
In between whiles, he's many things. First, a blaxploitation star, stickin' it to the man, the system: "Here, people are trying to save jobs. They look for scapegoats for everything." Then, a fast bowling svengali: "Fitness, pace doesn't come from 20-day camps. You have to build something then refine it. Refine it, don't scratch it."
He argues passionately that individuals win matches. "Everyone says 11 men make a winning team. They don't. Fast bowlers win matches and it's time Pakistan made seaming, grassy wickets." He has previously argued, equally passionately, precisely the opposite, that cricket is not won by individuals. Such a game it is that he isn't wrong on either occasion.
Bob Woolmer crops up, not uneasily despite his protestations that he hates talking about it. His last public interaction with Woolmer - an argument in South Africa - was, for spectacle, unfortunate, but his last private one, he assures, was more conciliatory. "I said to him, sorry I can't go to the World Cup. My knee is just not there. He said please look after yourself. Those were his last words to me." The media is blamed for hyperbole, the defence being if you live in one house, "brothers will fight." Earlier, he repeats how Woolmer referred to him as son. "He made a big contribution to Pakistan and was a wonderful man."
On to the future of Pakistan cricket and he laughs a laugh observers would swear is sarcastic, though his answer negates that. Maybe. "I can guarantee that Pakistan will beat Australia 3-0 in Pakistan. The only condition is how we invest in the next five months."
He is, at least, planning to "invest time in myself" in that period. He is fit but pulled out of the Abu Dhabi series because he wants to get fitter; as ever, he doesn't say what he means sometimes and doesn't mean what he says other times. The captaincy was not for him, he volunteers, as a matter of honour almost, and he spices it by pointing at the others who craved it. "Captaincy does not matter to me. You have seen that a lot of other people are interested in leading but they blame me for it. I never said I wanted to be captain." His namesake Malik is assured of full, brotherly support.
Away from camera and dictaphone, he is still celebrity. Discourse is broad, his hospitality warm. His two great loves, bikes and Bollywood, get ample airtime. Unsurprisingly, he raves about MS Dhoni, a batsman with the instincts of a fast bowler and not out of place on bike or in Bollywood. An attempt to discuss pace, specifically Shaun Tait, ends as quickly as it begins. "Paceispaceyaar (Pace is pace, mate)" he shoots without flinching, answering, explaining everything. The Beatles, it turns out, are wrong, because all you need is pace.
The trials of fame, actually, are not trials. As we speak about it, he offers to walk with us through his neighbourhood. Nobody will mob me here, he suspects. Accurately, I think, though that may have more to do with the oven-heat and the poshness of surrounding residents more than anything else. In India, says the TV journalist, it would be different. I forget to ask him which he would prefer.
He joshes the young cameraman as we leave, for nearly destroying his curtains (he did) and distributes warm hugs all round. He looks good, feels better. Shame Pakistan cricket does not. When both have been good at the same time, in the 1999 World Cup and 2005 against England, it's all been good. He's back, he repeats, in September. Fun times ahead.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo