In Come to Think of it, we bring new perspectives to bear on received cricket wisdom. This week: was Shoaib Akhtar undervalued?
There's a fairly widely held strand of public opinion that would view Shoaib Akhtar as a wasted talent. It isn't just armchair fans who might think this - just look at his ESPNcricinfo profile.
"But that he will end his career an 'if only' or a 'coulda been' is the great tragedy," it says, fairly high up. "He had it all and he blew it." It ends with these lines: "So much so that what he did on the field had long ago ceased to matter and has been eclipsed by his scrapes off the field. For any sportsman, that is a damning indictment."
There are reasons to feel this way, of course, and the profile lists them succinctly: "doubts about his action, ball-tampering offences, beating up his own team-mates, courtroom battles against his board, long bans and heavier fines, serious career-threatening injuries and most damagingly, doping charges."
None of this is untrue, and that list doesn't even include the time Akhtar's board sent out a press release explaining his absence from a squad, and, rather than reach for one of a thousand bland corporate euphemisms, spelled out the exact nature and location of the skin condition that was keeping him out.
Akhtar's post-retirement public persona has done little to burnish his legacy. At the time of writing, he's in the news for claiming that he turned down a lucrative county contract with Nottinghamshire so that he could fight in the Kargil War. He... what? Yeah.
But hard as it seems, it's actually possible to disentangle all that from the thing that really matters, and properly appreciate Akhtar for the magnificent cricketer he was.
There was the pace, of course, and it was a strange and magical coincidence that he came along at the exact historical moment when bowling speeds were first being measured and displayed on live TV as a matter of course. You didn't just know he was quick; you knew he was quicker than anyone else, probably ever.
It was also Akhtar's fate that another purveyor of extreme pace, Brett Lee, came along at pretty much the same time. For the first two or three years of this millennium, the two of them pushed themselves, each other, and the limits of the human body to bowl faster and faster still.
The pace race was thrilling to witness, but in a WWE sort of way, bordering on silliness and fetishising pace for pace's sake. Watch the five balls that this video packages in ascending order of speed. Are they, as claimed, the five fastest deliveries in cricket history? Who knows. Do they make the batsmen cower in fear? Not particularly, and the quickest of them, bowled by Akhtar to Nick Knight during the 2003 World Cup, clocking 161.3kph, is nudged routinely to midwicket.
Pace is pace, yaar, but it's how you use it that counts. The pace race had an inevitable intertwining effect on the careers of Akhtar and Lee, but in doing so, it did one of them a considerable disservice. One was fast and hard-working and a fine first change behind Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie. The other was fast and scary, utterly impossible to take your eyes off, and utterly unplayable on his day.
Akhtar was the superior bowler, unarguably, but even a surface reading of their Test numbers would tell you as much. The point isn't that Akhtar was better than Lee. It's that he was an almost one-of-a-kind bowler who heightened the effect of raw pace to a degree rarely seen at the highest level of the game.
There was, of course, the effect on the spectators, achieved via that run-up, that exaggerated sideways leap and javelin-thrower wind-up, the theatrics between deliveries - occasionally during his run-up - and even that hair. But all that would have come to nothing without his effect on batsmen.
When Akhtar was fully switched on, in rhythm, and at his physical peak, the pace was almost all he needed to have that effect. Pace aimed with thrilling directness at the base of the stumps. It sounds simple, but there's a reason why only a tiny fraction of other bowlers have ever really pulled it off - or even attempted it - on a regular basis. Bowling yorkers at high pace takes a lot out of your body, and there isn't a whole lot of margin for error. Get it wrong and it's a lot of energy expended, and probably a lot of runs conceded, with little left in the tank for the rest of the day's exertions.
ALSO READ: The sound of Shoaib (2015)
Akhtar's genius lay in being able to beat the very best batsmen with that direct, route-one method. I mean, come on. Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in the space of two balls? Ricky Ponting, both Waughs and Adam Gilchrist in the space of 11?
In between, there were six wickets in 8.2 overs in Lahore, which sent New Zealand crashing to 73 all out on a pitch where Pakistan had made 643. Only once has a bigger first-innings lead been secured by a team bowling second, and that happened in a timeless Test.
Watch those wickets again: bowled, bowled, bowled, bowled, lbw, bowled; four pinpoint yorkers, the other two balls also full enough to just about fall under that classification, all of them beating the batsman for pace, with little or no reverse in play - New Zealand's innings only lasted 30.2 overs. This was the definition of taking the conditions out of the equation, and few did it as well as Akhtar.
There might even be a way to measure this.
When Akhtar took wickets, he took them quickly, as have the other four names on the table below. Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn have run through numerous teams, the latter in all conditions; Stuart Broad routinely goes on inspired bursts of wicket-taking; and Andy Caddick was a memorable blow-hot, blow-cold performer.
But it's one thing to run through teams on helpful tracks or when there's support from the other end, and another to do it on your own. Shiva Jayaraman from ESPNcricinfo's stats team has come up with an ingenious way to separate one from the other, and Akhtar finds a place in this next table too. His strike rate, in innings where he took four or more wickets, was more than three times better than the collective strike rate of his bowling colleagues. It puts him second behind Ray Lindwall in the all-time list.
It's an imperfect measure, of course, penalising bowlers who are part of better and deeper bowling attacks, but it says something that in the Tests where Akhtar burst through the opposition at the rate of a wicket every 23 balls, Pakistan's other bowlers took one every 75 balls. When other bowlers struggled, he often found a way.
At his peak the pace was often enough, but bowling that fast took a lot out of him, physically and mentally, as he revealed to Sidharth Monga in this fascinating interview five years ago. "I used to crawl to my bathroom every day of my career," he said. "I used to limp out of my bed. I can't remember a day I didn't have pain in my knees for the last 18 years."
Akhtar knew he needed other tricks apart from pace, and he certainly had them: swing, seam - look at this ball to Chris Gayle, in Sharjah of all places - the use of angles, the ability to manipulate batsmen with his lengths. Watch him bowl Matthew Hayden from around the wicket here. The late swing is a joy in itself, but what you won't see is the short balls he bowled before this ball, to push Hayden back and stop him from stepping out of his crease as he did time and again to fast bowlers.
Then there was the Akhtar slower ball. No bowler has ever delivered this variation with a bigger drop-off in speed from their stock ball, and he bowled it with no discernible change in arm action. England, fresh off an Ashes victory they still haven't stopped talking about, had no answer to it during their 2005-06 tour of Pakistan. Akhtar bowled many quicker spells through his career, but few approached this one in Lahore for the bafflement he caused. You want to watch this, but maybe not if you're Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell, or Liam Plunkett.
That Test match was Akhtar's 39th. He only played seven more, the last of them on an India tour in 2007, where he outbowled most of his colleagues on largely unhelpful pitches. The skills hadn't gone away but the body was uncooperative. He continued playing ODIs, sporadically, until the 2011 World Cup, and that was that.
Forty-six Tests. Umar Gul, the perennially crocked Umar Gul, played 47.
Even with all his injuries, Akhtar could have probably squeezed in a few more, what with all the bans and disciplinary troubles. But it's a marvel, come to think of it, that he left himself enough room to squeeze in all those spells, and leave us with all those memories.
More Come to Think of it
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo