'There is no reason why we can't beat India' - Akhtar
Shoaib Akhtar is confident of Pakistan driving home the advantage in the forthcoming series against India, starting next month, and believes he can deliver the goods.
Akhtar, widely criticised for his dismal performance against India in 2004, also missed the tour earlier this year. Motivation, he maintains, will not be a problem as the crucial series kicks off on January 13 at Lahore. "You only need to hear the name of India to get motivation," he said in an interview to the Mumbai Mirror while in Karachi. "Players from both sides get charged up when we face one another. The whole team is looking forward to meeting the Indian challenge."
India, who recently defeated Sri Lanka 6-1 in a one-day series and 2-0 in a three-match Test series, travel to Pakistan full of confidence. Their last tour to Pakistan was a huge success, with Test and one-day series victories propelling the side to new heights. Akhtar, however, pointed to Pakistan's comprehensive defeat of England recently as evidence of his side's resurgence. "They've [India] won their home series against Sri Lanka ... but I think we beat a stronger team and that gives us the edge."
Critics have cited the coming series as a chance for Akhtar to take revenge on an India, but he was quick to deny this. "It's not revenge, as people are saying, but unfinished business against India," he said. "I still regret that I couldn't live upto expectations when India came here, but I did not lack commitment. I am always focussed on a series, as I am for the India series."
A medical inquiry, after allegations that he feigned injury in the crucial final Test against India at Rawalpindi in April 2004, seemed to have haunted Akhtar for the months after that series - he did not find favour with certain team-mates and was publicly criticised by Inzamam-ul-Haq - but Akhtar refused to dwell on the past. "It was something like a nightmare for me ... but I've forgotten all that," he said. "People did question my commitment, not only in the series against India but also on the tour of Australia where I took five wickets in the first innings of both Tests. All that is behind me."
Akhtar admitted that Imran Khan, the legendary Pakistan captain, had supported him and advised him to step it up. "My hero Imran Khan gave me a piece of advice before the England series, and I followed that," he continued. "He told me that I'm at the crossroads of my career and I must perform in the series. I did my best. Luckily for me, I played in all three Tests despite pain and niggles. So, if I can play with injury and do my best, no one should question my commitment."
Reflecting on his rebirth of sorts against England, where he picked up 17 wickets and looked comfortable shouldering the attack apart from batting with control and purpose, Akhtar was positive of carrying on in the same vein. "I want to do the same I did against England, and if I am able to do that, help my team win, it would be a huge relief for me."
Commenting on India's powerful batting line-up - including Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid - Akhtar singled out Dravid as the biggest threat to the Pakistan bowlers "Sachin is great, but I have always found Dravid more subtle, hard to get out," he said. "He has a solid defence and plays less shots than the other two. When a batsman plays less shots, he tends to give you less chances of getting him out."
Akhtar was, however, confident on Pakistan's confronting India with force. "The team has shown unity in the series against England ... bowlers have done their job to perfection," he said. "India is more used to the conditions we have in Pakistan ... they will naturally pose more of a challenge that England did. But I'm sure that we can fare better than last time." Having a rejuvenated Inzamam-ul-Haq at the helm of affairs, Akhtar added, was a huge bonus. "Inzamam has led the team admirably. He is in top form, so there is no reason why we can't beat India."