September 12, 2008

Desperate measures, desperate results

Surrey's signing of Shoaib Akhtar is optimistic, misguided or both

The heartbeat of the team: Shoaib Akhtar's arrival doesn't look like saving Surrey © PA Photos

There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. Take Shoaib Akhtar's figures from his first two days as a Surrey cricketer, for instance. Nineteen overs, one wicket, and an economy-rate of less than three. And he didn't break down. But it's hard to say he was a success, not even a qualified success. Yet no one should be surprised.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, as Surrey - the self-styled Manchester United of county cricket - struggle to maintain their first-division status. And yet, who on earth truly believed that Shoaib would be their saviour? In 2000, he didn't even make it on the field for Nottinghamshire before he was released from his contract due to injury. His one successful county stint came in 2003 and 2004 for Durham, when he took 42 wickets at an impressive 19 apiece, but he won no friends whatsoever during his most recent spell, with Worcestershire in 2005.

"Players like that are no good to our club. In fact, Shoaib has been no good for any club he's been at," the former Worcestershire chairman John Elliot said in late 2005. "It's all about team spirit and getting the dressing room right and when you've got a bloke like Shoaib in there, it can cause mayhem."

Steady on, though. It was a fine effort from Shoaib to even squeeze in a couple of games for Surrey, what with appearances on Indian TV shows and court dates in Pakistan. Shoaib's life is never dull but of late he's rarely made the headlines for cricketing reasons. Having said that, he's hardly played any cricket recently, partly because of Pakistan's struggles to get any matches but partly due to his own indiscretions. His last first-class game was back in February, since when he's had a few IPL outings in May. Even if Shoaib wasn't a player with such a colourful history, the fact is he wasn't ever going to bring his best form to The Oval.

His lack of match fitness was evident throughout Hampshire's long first innings. Out of 135 overs bowled during the first two days, Shoaib sent down 19 and none in more than a four-over spell. Even that shoddy work-rate didn't last. By the end of each burst he was already puffing, and it caught many by surprise when he made good ground to take a top-edged catch at fine-leg. Never mind the Rawalpindi Express, it was more like Thomas the Tank Engine, especially during his last, embarrassing three-over spell when he lolloped in at medium pace.

Occasionally, especially in his early spells, he would crank it up and rattle the batsman. A few gloves were hit, a few bouncers whistled past noses, and his wicket came from a quick delivery. In a way, that made the rest of his performance even more exasperating. When Surrey took their sixth wicket they had a chance to wrap up the innings, but Shoaib was barely seen during the 30-over 165-run stand between Nic Pothas and Dimitri Mascarenhas. Shoaib in his pomp would have raced in, targeted the stumps, and made swift work of the lower order. However, when he finally got to bowl at the No. 10, Imran Tahir, he was trundling in and Tahir was able to push onto the front foot with impunity.

A telling moment came earlier in the day when a slower-ball beamer slipped out and looped past Liam Dawson at chest height. These things happen and the game normally moves on, but Shoaib wasn't going to take his warning without some lengthy posturing. He has always thought very highly of himself and in an interview before the match said: "I have nothing to prove to the Pakistan selectors", and that he "couldn't do anything about other people's egos". The biggest problem is, he thinks he's bigger than the game, but in that moment he made himself look very small. Not that the Surrey dressing room has ever been short of players with inflated opinions of themselves.

A telling moment came earlier in the day when a slower-ball beamer slipped out and looped past Liam Dawson at chest height. These things happen and the game normally moves on, but Shoaib wasn't going to take his warning without some posturing

The purpose of bringing in a strike bowler is to win games. To have any hope of avoiding relegation, Surrey need two victories and therefore, in all likelihood, to take 20 wickets twice. It's believed Shoaib wasn't the club's No. 1 choice, but Harbhajan Singh was unavailable and many other international stars are taking advantage of a break after the postponement of the Champions Trophy.

However, when it transpired that Shoaib was the best available replacement, the search should have stopped. But Surrey's attack for most of the season has struggled to bowl sides out, and injury problems have mounted, so they felt forced into scouting around to see who was available. Unfortunately, that is the one major drawback of the two-division system - teams want to stay up at any cost and will import any player who might help.

Matthew Nicholson, the former New South Wales quick, who was released to allow Shoaib to join, wouldn't have done any worse. He's had a poor season, blighted by illness, but at least he would run in all day. That's what an overseas bowler is meant to do, not languish down at fine leg. They are meant to lead by example. Neither does it send much of a message to Surrey's young bowlers, but they have been getting mixed signals ever since Alex Tudor was brought back from Essex on loan. Surrey used to provide the core of the England team; now they resemble a retirement home.

The added problem with Shoaib is that he takes so long to bowl his overs - timed at seven minutes on a few occasions - and Surrey's over-rate was always behind the clock. At one stage, having claimed just two bowling points, they were in danger of ending in minus numbers. Everything suggests Surrey would have been better off without him.

If Mark Ramprakash, the acting Surrey captain, or the coach, Alan Butcher, expected to get anything more out of Shoaib, they were either far too optimistic or very poorly informed. He was a hothead coming in cold. Flying backwards and forwards because of visa problems didn't help, but Surrey's desire to chase him has telegraphed their desperation. They deserve everything that is coming to them this season.

Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer at Cricinfo