March 4, 2010

The perils of promise

Plenty of players have been doomed over the years by the burden of expectation. Here's hoping Shakib Al Hasan does not become a member of the club

"Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising." Shakib Al Hasan may not have heard of the author and critic Cyril Connolly, but it is hard to believe he is ignorant of the message.

Shakib, at 22, was the youngest member of the ICC World Test XI for 2009. He is probably quite relieved that it was not he but Peter Siddle who inherited the game's most toxic chalice when crowned as the best Emerging Player: of the five previous winners of that burdensome award, only Kevin Pietersen has subsequently experienced more good times than bad.

Irfan Pathan's bowling went into freefall; only recently has Ian Bell hinted at the consistency of purpose without which his fitful artistry cannot be indulged. Tormented by loss of form, besieged by expectations that he could produce accurate 100mph thunderbolts on demand, Shaun Tait sank into depression and has only just returned to the frontline. Ajantha Mendis carried on mesmerising for a short while, only to be unravelled by batsmen and unravel himself. Siddle looked drained after the Ashes and then broke down. And just look at the speed with which JP Duminy and Phillip Hughes have reclaimed mortality.

As with every branch of human endeavour, this game of ours is littered with similar tales of precipitous decline, prolonged blips and ultimate unfulfilment, of promise squandered and unsurvived. Of the first 21 men to score a century on their Test debut (a list that stretches from Charles Bannerman in 1877 to Jim Burke in 1951), 10, including WG Grace and Ranji, never managed it again; seven did so just the once; and only George Headley and Bill Ponsford added more than three (Andy Ganteaume, admittedly, was never given another chance). Contrast that with the Blobs R Us debutants who ducked and lucked out: Victor Trumper, Len Hutton, Allan Border, Majid Khan, Ken Barrington, Gundappa Viswanath, Glenn Turner, Graham Gooch, Saeed Anwar, Richie Richardson.

Only over the past decade has this trend been arrested: between February 2000 and October 2004, Younis Khan, Thilan Samaraweera, Virender Sehwag, Andrew Strauss and Michael Clarke took turns to march to 100 on debut. Helpfully, the days are gone, more or less, when a player could be plucked from obscurity, whether on a whim or a hunch or to boost gate receipts, or simply because he happened to be on honeymoon in the right place at the right time (Tony Pigott, come on down). Apprenticeships tend to be longer, more searching. Board contracts curb selectors' excesses.

Overall, nonetheless, for every Abbas Ali Baig, Praveen Amre or Yasir Hameed, all victims of selectorial inconsistency and neglect, and other unfortunate debut centurions such as Len Baichan - who had the not-inconsiderable task of disrupting the two-decade stranglehold exerted by Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes atop the West Indies order - there have been flatterers and deceivers: Mohammad Wasim, John Hampshire and Frank Hayes, Rodney Redmond, Matthew Sinclair and Ali Naqvi. Either bowlers worked them out or they fell on their own swords, undone above all by an absence of inner certainty.

Nor are bowlers exempt from this unripening. The only two men to take 16 wickets on debut, Narendra Hirwani and Bob Massie, wound up, respectively, with 66 and 31 in toto. Of the 11 who have harvested 11 or more first-up, only Clarrie Grimmett and Alec Bedser prospered for long. Midway through his third Test, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan had spun his way to three consecutive six-fors, but nailed just seven opponents thereafter. Not that that deprived him of a comfy seat in the commentary booth.

Shahid Afridi won Pakistan the World Twenty20. Yes, he has continued to give us sessions and passages when there is nobody on the planet we would rather see flinging a bat or tossing a ball, but he was born to exasperate, to remind us that unadorned talent can never be enough

First impressions can be the father to all manner of illusions. Marlon Samuels and Dwayne Smith have taken turns to infuriate the Caribbean. Albie Morkel began his plummet as soon as South Africans started hailing him as the new Klusener. Yes, Shahid Afridi won Pakistan the World Twenty20; yes, he has continued to give us sessions and passages when there is nobody on the planet we would rather see flinging a bat or tossing a ball; but he was born to exasperate, born to remind us that unadorned talent can never be enough, not without mental strength and undivided attention.

When it comes to divining the future, Under-19 World Cups are more hindrance than help. Three long-term achievers out of 11? You'll be lucky. The nearest Australia, the first winners, came was Stuart Law and Alan Mullally. The next, England in 1998, produced half a dozen teenagers who would fly the flag as men, but only Owais Shah and Graeme Swann have shone against the best. Of the Australian squad that year, only James Hopes and Marcus North have made it from footlights to Broadway. Of the victorious Indian XI of 2000, only Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh have gone on to discernibly greater things; of the beaten Sri Lankan XI, only Jehan Mubarak and Thilina Kandamby have done much besides.

Patience doesn't always reap its own rewards in a world of brittle bodies and dazzling spotlights. Too many spot the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow too soon, cannot re-focus or recalibrate their ambition. Most senior teams are stocked with those closer to 30 than 20. Cygnets take time to become Swanns.

Yet still, like parents, we saddle the young with our excessive expectations, buffet them with our unreasonable demands, deny them our easily tried patience. All the more reason to admire Mitchell Johnson for possessing the fibre and determination to withstand the pressure and become an overnight star at 27. And all the more reason to feel compassion for that sudden loss of radar in England last July. Pietersen deserves no less.

SHAKIB HAS A COUPLE of additional hoops to jump through. For one thing, he is one of the youngest captains in Test annals. He is also the first world-beater to emerge from what was once East Pakistan, all but alone in his capacity to bring his benighted land a modicum of joy. Pressure, pressure, pressure, everywhere he looks. Witness that photo of him on one knee, purportedly begging forgiveness from Mustafa Kamal, his board president, after a loss to India. Somehow, he is still walking the walk and talking the talk.

Next week's first Test against England ought to see him gather the 23 runs he requires to become the 91st member of the 1000 runs-50 wickets club. In 17 matches he has taken five wickets in an innings six times, one fewer than Mohammad Rafique, Bangladesh's most successful bowler, managed in 33 outings. Only Mahmudullah (16 at 27.68) has aggregated more than one Test scalp for Bangladesh at a lesser cost than Shakib's 58 at 30.66. And only Tamim Iqbal (33.57) has averaged more for the Banglas than Shakib's 32.56 with the bat. But for the want of two more boundaries - he's made a 96 and a 96 not out - he would also be one of only three countrymen to score three Test hundreds.

In ODIs, the quality is undiminished. In his first 82, going into Sunday's opening scrap with England in Dhaka, Shakib has totted up 2226 runs at 34.78 and 90 wickets at 31.12. Only the ignorant and churlish would scoff at that. Among those who have claimed 90-plus ODI victims at under 32, in addition to four figures' worth of runs, only Lance Klusener (41.10) and Shane Watson (40.83) have averaged more with the bat.

Only a couple of knights, Garry Sobers (1966-69) and Ian Botham (1981), have ever done such double duty, serving as their side's best batsman and best bowler simultaneously (though in recent times Daniel Vettori has been almost as put-upon). Pressure, pressure, pressure. Then again, maybe he copes with it all because he knows, by comparison with 99.9% of his 150 million compatriots, how kindly fate has treated him.

The immediate question is not so much whether Shakib can build on that but whether he can keep it up. Graeme Smith had it tough, sure, but not even he had to keep so many eggs in the air at such a tender age. And at least he had a clutch of world-class players at his disposal.

Calm and collected at the toss in Dhaka, even as England eased towards victory he looked preposterously relaxed, another broad, toothy, guileless smile never far away, at one with his lot but maybe too obviously resigned to his fate. This annoyed one local commentator, who urged him to adopt "a meaner look". Given that so many of his charges appear satisfied merely to be occupying the same field as the Tendulkars and Pietersens, the occasional growl or double-teapot might not hurt.

With the ball in his hands he was cool, canny and curmudgeonly. At the crease, having maintained an impressively sober disposition for nearly 40 minutes, he charged Swann, with the job not even quarter done. In the second ODI he flamed and burned, again charging the offspinner. Right now, keeping head above water and legs kicking may be the most realistic aim.

Cyril Connolly defined promise as "the capacity for letting people down… a dark spider". At present, as ever, there is no shortage of promising young things attempting to disentangle themselves from that sticky web. To those wobbly worthies cited above you can add Tamim and Mahmudullah, Suresh Raina and Stuart Broad, Eoin Morgan and Adrian Barath, Kemar Roach and Mohammad Aamer. Shakib's efforts to pull his people up could well prove the most fascinating of these growth graphs. And much the most inspirational.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton