A career of hits and misses
A tally of 178 wickets in 46 Test matches is a good reason to say that Shoaib Akhtar's impact on his team cannot be measured by statistics alone. It's true that the numbers aren't bad at all - he also took 241 ODI wickets, and his averages in both forms are the fourth-best for any Pakistan bowler who took more than 150 wickets, while his Test strike rate of 45.7 is second only to Waqar Younis' 43.4. Yet there remains a feeling that Shoaib could have been much more than he eventually was, and that he should have taken many more wickets, and impacted a lot more matches, than he did.
Shoaib's international career stretched more than 13 years, which means he averaged 3.54 Tests and 12.54 ODIs per year. Allowing five days per Test, he played, on an average, about 30 days of international cricket per year. (And if you feel extremely generous, add a day per year for the 15 Twenty20 internationals.) Wasim Akram, on the other hand, averaged about 49 days of international cricket a year over 18 years.
From the beginning of his career Shoaib's ability was never in doubt, but he seldom strung together a set of top-class performances. His first five-for came in only his third Test: against South Africa in Durban, Shoaib took 5 for 43 in an exciting win, with none of the fielders contributing in any of his wickets - four, including Jacques Kallis, were bowled, and one was lbw. That trend was to continue through most of his career, with 99 out of 178 victims either bowled or lbw, but in his next five Tests he took only 10 wickets, before stunning Eden Gardens and the whole of India with incredible swinging yorkers at high speed that Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar couldn't keep out. His match haul of 8 for 118 was instrumental in Pakistan's 46-run win, but again, it failed to spark a sustained run of brilliance, as he managed only 20 wickets in his next seven Tests. In his first four years in Test cricket, Shoaib averaged less than three wickets per Test, and more than 36 runs per wicket.
The change came in 2002, and the next two years turned out to be the greatest of his Test career. In only 13 Tests he took 72 wickets, striking once every 30 deliveries. He blew away West Indies in Sharjah but saved his best for Australia and New Zealand. In Colombo against Australia, he was more than a handful for some of the best batsmen of the time, blowing away Ricky Ponting, the Waugh brothers and Adam Gilchrist in a spell that remains one of the best ever seen in Test cricket. A few months before that Colombo blitz, he had destroyed New Zealand's line-up in Lahore, taking 6 for 11 in 8.2 overs, which remain his best figures in Test cricket, and he finished 2003 with match figures of 11 for 78 in the Boxing Day Test in Wellington. Thankfully for New Zealand's batsmen, those were the only two Tests he played against them - his career average versus New Zealand is 5.23. All three of his Man-of-the-Match displays came during this two-year period, as did his longest stretch of consecutive Tests, when he played seven in a row between January and October 2002 (which is only 146 short of the world record).
From 2004 onwards Shoaib played only 17 Tests, missing matches for reasons too varied to be listed here. He had a few memorable performances but never reached the heights he did in 2002 and 2003. (Click here for Shoaib's career summary in Tests.)
|Period||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Till Dec 2001||16||46||36.45||64.1||2/ 0|
|Jan 2002 to Dec 2003||13||72||15.08||30.4||6/ 2|
|Jan 2004 onwards||17||60||30.18||50.0||4/ 0|
Shoaib's tally of 178 Test wickets is the eighth-highest for Pakistan, and only three of those bowlers have a better average.
|Bowler||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Imran Khan||88||362||22.81||53.7||23/ 6|
|Waqar Younis||87||373||23.56||43.4||22/ 5|
|Wasim Akram||104||414||23.62||54.6||25/ 5|
|Shoaib Akhtar||46||178||25.69||45.7||12/ 2|
|Iqbal Qasim||50||171||28.11||76.1||8/ 2|
|Saqlain Mushtaq||49||208||29.83||67.6||13/ 3|
Shoaib's stats are admittedly excellent, but the problem with him was Pakistan could never be sure when he was fit and available to play. Since the beginning of his Test career on November 29, 1997, Pakistan have played 115 Tests, of which Shoaib played only 46. Pakistan's results in the Tests he played in were significantly better than when he didn't - the win-loss ratio was 1.25 when he played, and 0.71 when he was out of the team.
|Tests||Won/ lost||Wickets||Average||Strike rate|
|With Shoaib||46||20/ 16||702||33.63||62.1|
|Without Shoaib||69||20/ 28||1038||34.70||67.4|
However, the number of Tests he missed meant he could never form a meaningful combination with another fast bowler. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis played 61 Tests together, which is more than the total number of matches Shoaib played. The most Tests another fast bowler played with him was 20, by Mohammad Sami (though it's arguable what kind of support Shoaib got from him). Waqar played 19, while Abdul Razzaq, who was hardly a strike bowler, played 17.
The two other fast bowlers with whom Shoaib could have formed a lethal on-field combination are Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif, but Asif ended up playing only four Tests with Shoaib, and Gul managed just three.
|Bowler||Tests||Wickets||Average||Strike rate||5WI/ 10WM|
|Danish Kaneria||25||93||37.11||71.2||4/ 0|
|Saqlain Mushtaq||16||71||25.60||53.9||4/ 1|
|Waqar Younis||19||69||25.46||44.0||2/ 1|
|Mohammad Sami||20||44||54.63||92.4||0/ 0|
|Abdul Razzaq||17||34||36.29||64.9||0/ 0|
Even in the matches that Shoaib played, there wasn't always a guarantee that he would last the duration: in the 46 Tests he played, Shoaib bowled only 8143 deliveries, sometimes because of his fitness worries mid-match, and sometimes because captains didn't want to risk too many overs from him. Only three times in his career did he bowl more than 30 overs in an innings, while the only instance he bowled more than 50 in a match was against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo in 1998.
Over his career, Shoaib averaged 177 balls per match, which is the second-lowest among fast bowlers with at least 150 Test wickets. The only one lower than him is Kallis, who obviously does a lot more in the South African team than just bowl.
|Bowler||Tests||Balls bowled||Wickets||Average||Balls per match|
As an ODI bowler, Shoaib's biggest asset was his strike rate. In a format which places a premium on economy, he pegged teams back with his ability to take wickets. Like in Tests, he played less than 50% of Pakistan's ODIs since his debut, but unlike the Test stats, his absence didn't impact the team's results adversely in ODIs. Of the 158 games he played for Pakistan, the team won 84 and lost 72; in the 188 matches he didn't play, Pakistan won 110 and lost 73.
Another difference between his Test and ODI numbers is the way he began his ODI career. He struggled for consistency in Tests, but in ODIs he was among the wickets straightaway, getting two or more in nine of his first 15 ODIs. He'd played only 16 ODIs going into the 1999 World Cup, but he handled the pressure well, taking 16 wickets in 10 games, including his first Man-of-the-Match award in the semi-finals against his favourite opponents, New Zealand, for a haul of 3 for 55.
Like in Tests, his best ODI phase too was till the end of 2003. He was positively devastating in some matches during this period, especially against New Zealand: over a 15-month period he took 5 for 19 and 6 for 16 against them, which remained two of his best ODI performances.
|Period||ODIs||Wickets||Average||Econ rate||Strike rate|
|Till Dec 2003||95||155||21.41||4.51||28.4|
|Jan 2004 onwards||68||92||30.97||5.09||36.4|
Despite the number of games he missed, Shoaib still finishes as Pakistan's sixth-highest wicket-taker in ODIs, and fourth in terms of averages among Pakistan bowlers who've taken at least 150 wickets.
|Bowler||ODIs||Wickets||Average||Economy rate||Strike rate|
During his pomp Shoaib was one of the best ODI bowlers going around, especially in terms of his wicket-taking ability. Till the end of 2003 he'd taken 155 wickets in 95 games, with an average and strike rate that were among the best. Only Muttiah Muralitharan and McGrath had a better average than Shoaib's 21.41, while Brett Lee was the only one with a better strike rate.
|Bowler||ODIs||Wickets||Average||Econ rate||Strike rate|
When Shoaib took wickets, Pakistan usually won. Of his 247 wickets, 154 came in victories, and in those 85 games Shoaib struck every 25.7 deliveries, which is the second-best among those with 150 wickets, next only to Saqlain. In fact, Shoaib is one of only five bowlers in the history of ODI cricket to take more than 150 wickets at an average of less than 25 and a strike rate of below 32 balls per wicket. All these are excellent stats, but with more commitment and a better attitude, his numbers would have been even more impressive.
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo