Shoaib Akhtar. Fastest bowler ever, doping charges, hit team mate with a bat, ball tampering. Those are just some words that come to mind when you think of Akhtar. Surprisingly, they don’t even tell half the story of his 14-year-old career.
Shoaib, also known as the Rawalpindi Express, was the last genuine fast bowler Pakistan produced in the past two decades. He is a man that fit the role in all aspects, pace as well as attitude. His numbers barely do justice to his talent, but his career was as exhilarating as it gets.
Today, on his 38th birthday, a trip down Shoaib Akhtar’s career seems fitting. The highlights of his career were highlights any cricketer would dream of, the lows, well they were another story.
Akhtar fit into the role Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis vacated, perfectly. He was fast. He was lethal. And he made sure everyone knew that. In the words of the South African great Allan Donald, "he was intimidating. He was very intimidating. I would actually say that out of the three of them (Wasim, Waqar), Shoaib Akhtar was the most intimidating bowler."
Akhtar made evident his rocky personality even before his international debut. He was dropped out of Pakistan’s Sahara Cup squad in 1996 on account of indiscipline. The next year, while touring with Pakistan A, the manager cited him for indiscipline too. His attitude coupled with his injury prone body set the pattern for a career beset by highs and lows. Let’s do Shoaib a birthday favour, though and not focus on the lows. Today we mention his highs, and not the doping ones.
On this day, Shoaib Akhtar was firing on all cylinders. He picked up his first wicket in his first over, hitting Ricky Ponting’s middle stump with an inswinger, hurtling in at over 151 kph. In his next over, he dismissed Darren Lehmann who was beaten for pace by a ball aimed at his leg stump leaving Australia at 52/4. A pacy short ball accounted for Damien Martyn next who couldn’t keep his shot down, handing Saeed Anwar an easy catch at third man. Shoaib’s figures at this point were three overs, three for six with one maiden. In his fifth over, a fast outswinger got Michael Bevan’s outside edge which Rashid Latif collected to leave Australia tottering at 84 for six, chasing 257. When Shoaib returned for his second spell of the match, he picked up a wicket with his first ball- a toe crushing yorker to Jason Gillespie catching him plumb infront of middle stump. Shoaib ended with figures of 8-1-25-5.
On a flat Karachi wicket, the only way to pick up wickets is with pace. Shoaib Akhtar did just that. Here again, he picked up his first wicket in his first over, bowling a fast bouncer to Craig McMillan who pulled it, and got a top edge straight to mid wicket. In the very next over, Akhtar uprooted Jacob Oram’s off stump with a fast yorker to leave New Zealand at 76/5. His third over got him his third wicket, another short ball leaving debutant Robbie Hart in a tangle, gloving it to the keeper. Akhtar’s fourth wicket literally broke the off stump of Andre Adams as he tried to move away and hit Akhtar but was beaten for pace. The next two batsmen were also bowled by Akhtar, who ended with figures of 9-1-16-6, completing a ferocious spell.
Shoaib Akhtar picked up 11 wickets in this match, destroying New Zealand’s batting order in each innings. In his second over, Akhtar picked up two wickets, shattering Lou Vincent’s stumps and getting Stephen Fleming lbw 4 balls later to leave NZ at 1-2 after three overs. Shoaib then picked up his third wicket in his eight over getting Scott Styris to edge one through to Moin Khan. New Zealand recovered from the weak start to post a total of 366 with Akhtar picking up two of the last four wickets to end with a tally of 5/48. The Rawalpindi express was even more devastating in the second innings, picking up six wickets, three bowled and one lbw to abruptly end New Zealand’s innings at 103 leaving Pakistan 274 to win, which they completed with 7 wickets to spare.
This was perhaps the pinnacle of Shoaib’s career. In this series, he contributed heavily to Pakistan’s ultimate win at home over England, picking up a total of 17 wickets in the three tests. In the third test, Akhtar’s second ball gave the wicket of Marcus Trescothick in the first over of the match. He followed up with the wickets of Michael Vaughan, Ian Bell, Geraint Jones and Liam Plunkett to end with figures of five for 71 handing Pakistan a huge win by an innings and 100 runs and the series by 2-0. In this tournament, Shoaib Akhtar developed his reputations as a smarter bowler than what he is usually credited for. A lethal yorker, which he always possessed, was now paired with a deceptive, looping slower delivery which tortured the English batsmen all summer long. It is an art Lasith Malinga, the Sri Lankan pacer, has developed since then and it is his claim to fame too.
In all, it can safely be said Shoaib’s returns were far less than what he could have achieved. His injuries, misdemeanors and general attitude led to constant lows followed by his bowling highs. Yet it can also safely be said that he bowled his heart out for his team. With an impossibly long run up, the sight of Akhtar hurtling in was a sight all fans of fast bowling would ache to see again. His trademark aeroplane celebration added to his charisma. He may have let us down with his actions, but he gave us his all. And that is all a fan needs.
One for the memories: