In the most significant statement of his captaincy thus far, Shoaib Malik has effectively put a question mark over the international future of Shoaib Akhtar, openly doubting his fitness and commitment in the field. Younger fast bowlers impressing on the domestic circuit, said Malik, should now be given a chance to prepare Pakistan for the future.
Malik was speaking after Pakistan's 129-run loss to Sri Lanka in the second ODI in Karachi, in which Shoaib failed to complete his full quota of ten overs for the second game running. After bowling seven expensive overs in the first ODI yesterday, Shoaib delivered six largely ineffective and costly overs today. He struggled in the field, generally appearing listless and often unwilling to chase down balls.
The performance clearly incensed Malik, who vented his frustrations after the match. Asked whether it was time Pakistan planned for the World Cup 2011 and looked beyond Shoaib, Malik said: "We have to move forward. There are a number of good fast bowlers around on the domestic scene and they deserve a chance. I will take this up with the selectors and team management and these things will be kept in mind."
The unusually frank response led predictably to a volley of Shoaib-related questions. Generally a man of few words and often with little patience for persistent reporters, Malik responded to every query, with the same, basic underlying message: that he [Shoaib] lacked fitness and that cricket no longer was so accommodating to passengers in the field.
"If you look at his performances and record and matches he has won, there is no question over his effectiveness," Malik said. "But the question is over 100% fitness. Cricket has changed and if you aren't 100% fit then it is difficult."
All the noises before the series had suggested Shoaib was fit. He had been bowling in domestic tournaments, both in the Pentangular ODI Cup and the four-day Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. His selection, Malik said, was justified, but it may not be in the future. "He was working hard, bowling in first-class matches so it was justified picking him. But we have good fast bowlers around and there is competition. In future, you won't just get picked if you are fit."
The first ODI was Shoaib's first 50-over international in 14 months and back-to-back matches were always going to test his fitness. It showed today in his bowling speeds, which rarely ventured over 140kph. Malik said he had resisted bowling Shoaib out yesterday with today's game in mind, but was concerned about the dip in speeds.
"He has the ability to bowl 10 overs but the question mark is over maintaining speeds through 10 overs and the determination we want in the field over 50 overs."
Asked specifically whether he had seen the required commitment from Shoaib over the two matches, Malik was damning. "Everyone can see what is out there. The ability to bowl ten overs is there but the commitment in fielding that I want wasn't there."
The comments come at a critical time in Shoaib's career. After a stellar winter season in 2005-06, injury, fitness, doping issues and persistent run-ins with the administration have reduced him to a peripheral player, playing just four Tests and 11 ODIs since February 2006. But he remains a big personality.
The timing of Malik's remarks are also significant. Since taking over as captain in May 2007, reports of dissent between him and a clique of senior players have been ever-present. Mohammad Yousuf, now an ICL player, has come out in public and it has always been thought Shoaib was part of the dissatisfied group as well.
Despite this, Malik refused to entirely rule out the prospect of Shoaib being selected for the final ODI of the series. "Maybe he has a problem and that is why he wasn't running in the field," he said. "The 15-man squad is there but you can't also just have a new guy come in to such an important game."