Pakistani all-rounder Shoaib Malik's profile on the popular cricket website, Espncricinfo, begins by noting that Malik has played almost every role (as a player) in international cricket, but no one is quite sure what his role really is.
This enigmatic little quip actually sums up Malik’s personality rather well. Even though he’s been in and out of the Pakistan side since 1999, he has been largely unable to define exactly where his strengths as a cricketer lie.
What’s more, his captains and the coaches that he has played under (and with), too, seem all at sea in providing a consolidated and well-defined role for him in the team.
So, what is it about him that leaves so many of his cricketing contemporaries and elders baffled that they just cannot set a goal and a role according to the obvious talents that he has always possessed?
Some believe that Malik is just too withdrawn and detached as a personality and not very easy to understand or communicate with. No one knows what goes on in his head as he almost perversely blocks all attempts to be analysed, even by his closest colleagues.
Yet, there is this other Malik as well. A stubborn hothead who can suddenly fly off the handle like an angry young man responding to a slight inflicted by the powers that be.
But he’s not all that young anymore. He’s 33. However, he does seem to be on a path to correct this aspect of his puzzling temperament.
In January 2014, I was in Dubai interviewing Pakistan’s captain, Misbahul Haq at the hotel where the Pakistan team was staying (during a Pakistan-Sri Lanka series).
After conducting the interview, I also managed to meet a few other Pakistani players and the team’s coach at the time, Moin Khan.
During a brief conversation with a player there, Shoaib Malik’s name came up somehow. This player – a batsman who had played a lot of cricket with Malik – said, ‘Malik should have been part of this team.’
But he quickly added, ‘He (Shoaib) himself is the reason why he is not playing for Pakistan anymore. The captain (Misbah) would love to have him in the squad, but Malik refuses to realise that he can’t be in the team because of no other reason than the fact that his attitude is bringing him down …’
The player then (smilingly) also explained the attitude he was talking about:
‘It’s as if on a day-to-day basis he (Malik) swings like a pendulum (bari ghari ka danda). One day he is extremely quiet and lost in his thoughts, the next day he is cracking witty remarks and the next moment, he is sulking or lashing out, and no one knows what is making him swing to and fro like this …’
Well, yesterday, Malik’s temperament must have swung towards a much happier disposition as he continued to be on a dream-like comeback trail.
Returning to the Pakistan ODI and T20 sides after being completely written off, Malik smashed 500 runs (at a massive average of 114.41) in the 11 ODI games that he has played after returning to the side early this year.
His good form then bagged him a place in Pakistan’s Test squad, recently engaged in playing an important series against England in the UAE.
When Malik was selected to play in the first Test (still in progress), this was his first Test after spending a good five years in the wilderness.
He came in at no. 3 and would have done well to stay there a bit and maybe crack a 40 to reacclimatise himself to the exhaustive aura of Test cricket. Instead, he went on to pile a mammoth 245!
Also read: Malik strikes gold in comeback Test
Misbah was seen applauding Malik’s Herculean effort enthusiastically. When Malik was selected (as a last minute addition) to the Test squad, Misbah did not hesitate to exhibit how pleased he was to have him in the team.
Malik’s recent form alone was not the only reason why Misbah sounded delighted to have him in his squad. Getting him in and then giving him a go in the very first Test of the series (apparently due to the injury suffered by Azhar Ali), Misbah was repaying a debt that he owed to Malik.
On a number of occasions, Misbah has named Malik as the man who (when he was captain) had fought a grueling battle with the selectors to bring back Misbah into the side after he had been left to wither away in the obscurity of domestic cricket.
Misbah had made his ODI and Test debuts in 2001-2002. But after being dropped from the squad just before the 2003 Cricket World Cup, he was largely forgotten about despite the fact that he was notching some impressive scores in domestic games.
Malik replaced the mighty Inzamam-ul-Haq as captain in 2007 (after the latter resigned due to the team’s terrible show at the 2007 World Cup). The same year also saw the inauguration of the T20 World Cup (in South Africa).
Malik wanted Misbah in the squad. The selectors were not quite sure. To them, Misbah was passé, even though the current Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), Shahryar Khan, claims in his book, The Cricket Conundrum, that the board was quite aware of Misbah’s good performances in domestic cricket, but that it was captain Inzamam who had kept him away from making his much deserved comeback.
Khan suggests Inzamam was ‘a highly insecure captain’ and ‘was suspicious’ of players who were more educated than him. Khan also alluded that Inzamam, who was promoting a certain strand of religiosity in the team (as a regulatory tactic), saw Misbah as not quite fitting in this scheme of things.
However, Misbah has repeatedly (and rather diplomatically), underplayed the issue, simply suggesting that (to him) a captain would not keep out a good player for reasons related to things other than cricket.
Another reason that Misbah often cites for his exclusion is that during Inzi’s captaincy, the team had a packed middle-order and it was difficult for a batsman like him to break back into the side.
Whatever the reason may have been behind Misbah’s wilderness years, Malik pulled him back into the Pakistan team for the 2007 T20 World Cup, and that too at the expense of the veteran, Mohammad Yousuf.
Misbah’s return too was impressive, until he was dropped again in 2010, to return once more in 2011, this time as captain of a side rocked by spot-fixing and infighting.
This time, he marched on to finally become a prolific batting mainstay in the team and then the country’s most successful Test captain, roping in more wins than any other Pakistan Test skipper.
So I’m sure Misbah could entirely relate to the way Malik has marked his return from the cricketing wasteland. But unlike Malik, Misbah’s temperament has remained one-dimensional: steady, calm, reflective. Always.
Malik, on the other hand, has been more like a misguided missile. Though not quite coupled by the media with the enfant terrible likes of yore, such as the moody and random Wasim Hassan Raja, the implosive Sarfraz Nawaz, and the confrontational Shoaib Akhtar, Malik’s eccentricities have been largely elusive and tough to comprehend.
Born in 1982 into a middle-class family in Sialkot (in Pakistan’s Punjab province), Malik was being groomed by his parents for a decent education and then a stable job. He was interested in cricket but only to the point of watching it on TV and playing it in the streets like any kid would in Pakistan.
However, in 1994, when he was 12, he gingerly walked into a ‘travelling coaching clinic’ (that had reached Sialkot). It was being headed by Pakistan’s former captain and cricket icon, Imran Khan.
Malik fancied himself as a batsman who could bowl a bit. But not much came out of his trip to the coaching clinic because he was soon barred (by his parents) from even playing cricket on the streets because it was disturbing his studies.
In an interview that he gave to cricket journalist, Osman Samiuddin, in 2004, Malik alluded that it was his mother who was the stricter parent, while his father would secretly encourage his passion to play.
In 1996, he slipped out of the house to attend trials that were being held to select a squad for an Under-15 World Cup in England.
To his parents’ surprise, he was selected and to his own surprise, he was picked in the side as an off-break bowler!
So batting went out the window and he began to concentrate on his bowling, managing to also make his way into the Pakistan Under-19 team for a series (in Pakistan) against the England U-19 team, which also included a young 17-year-old Freddie Flintoff (the future England star).
Impressed by Pakistan’s then latest off-spinning sensation, Saqlain Mushtaq, Malik began to remodel his bowling action. In 1997, he made his first-class debut in domestic cricket when he was selected to play for Gujranwala.
Former Pakistan batsman, Asif Mujtaba, was so impressed by Malik’s bowling that he jettisoned his entry into the much bigger (and better-paying) domestic side, PIA.
Malik was overjoyed, because PIA was studded with top Pakistani players, including Wasim Akram, Moin Khan and Malik’s idol at the time, Saqlain Mushtaq.
In 1999, while replacing an injured Saqlain Mushtaq in a domestic ODI game, Malik impressed Akram and Moin so much that they included his name in the Pakistan team that Akram was to lead for the Champions Trophy tournament in Sharjah.
Malik only got to know about his inclusion when he returned to Sialkot (from Karachi, where he had played the match). The news was broken to him by his ecstatic parents. They finally allowed their wistful teenager son to pursue his passion.
Though he bowled steadily in the tournament, he was aware of the fact that he won’t be getting many chances to retain his place after the return (from injury) of the spinning maestro, Saqlain Mushtaq.
Malik thus began to pester his captains in the domestic circuit to push him up the batting order so he could prove that he was an equally accomplished batsman.
In early 2000, the new Pakistan captain, Waqar Younus, began using Malik as an all-rounder, and sent him up the order during an ODI game against the West Indies in Sharjah. Malik grabbed the opportunity and smashed a quickfire century.
Then, in August 2001 (still just 19), he made his Test debut in Multan against the visiting Bangladesh. But it wasn’t an impressive debut, and he kept falling in and out of the team for the next two years until in 2004, when he began to score big (and pick regular wickets).
He was made a permanent member of the team by captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, under whom Malik blossomed into becoming an exciting all-rounder.
Pakistan’s coach, the late Bob Woolmer, saw in Malik a future captain because (according to Woolmer), Malik’s ideas were ‘the most original and sharp’ (compared to other youngsters in the team).
Malik’s relationship with Inzamam was a largely quiet one. Though Malik never entirely submitted to Inzamam’s unique regime that mixed exhibitions of faith with cricket, he quietly went along, cementing his position in the squad.
In 2005, at the age of 23, he was made the captain of the Sialkot side in the country’s first major T20 tournament.
Captaincy brought out the other, more unsavoury, side of Malik’s personality; from being the quiet and easy-going character, he became a sharp, aggressive and determined man on the field.
Leading from the front and desperate to bag the national T20 title, he lost his temper at the umpires during a match against the Lahore Eagles. He accused the umpires of siding with the Eagles. And as if this wasn’t enough, he ordered his team to deliberately lose their next game (against the Karachi Zebras) just so the Eagles would be knocked out and fail to make the semi-finals.
During the post-match ceremony, commentator Rameez Raja asked Malik (live on TV) whether he thought his decision to throw away the game would dent his chances of ever captaining Pakistan in the future.
Malik exhibited no remorse. He told Rameez that he didn’t care if he was ever made (or not made) Pakistan’s captain. He said his actions were justified because he was left with no other option (by the tournament’s organisers). He lamented that the only option left for him was to throw away the game (as a matter of protest). He also reiterated his allegations against the umpires.
Malik was handed a 1-Test ban and a fine by the PCB.
In 2006, during a series against arch rivals India (in Pakistan), Malik exploded with the bat, blasting 90, 95 and 108 in three consecutive ODI innings. The same year he also notched his first ever Test century (against Sri Lanka). He told reporters in Lahore that his scores should once and for all shut his critics up (in the media).
After Pakistan were embarrassingly knocked-out from the 2007 World Cup, Inzamam resigned as skipper and PCB approached Younus Khan to become Pakistan’s next captain. Younus refused.
The board then decided to honour the observations made by Woolmer in 2005 about Malik’s potential to become a good captain. Woolmer had tragically passed away during the 2007 World Cup.
So Malik was made captain. Though his two-year stint as skipper was at best patchy, he did come close to winning the first ever T20 World Cup. During his captaincy, he had a falling out with Mohammad Yousuf, who accused him of keeping him out of the side.
Things went from bad to worse when the parents of an Indian-Muslim girl claimed that Malik had married their daughter.
Malik, who was once described by a cricketing friend as ‘a discreet Casanova’, immediately denied the allegations. The lady continued to appear on Indian TV for a while and accused Malik of betraying her trust. The family, however, could never prove that Malik had actually married the daughter.
In 2009, Malik was unceremoniously removed from captaincy after Pakistan lost badly against Sri Lanka. A leaked report (authored by the coach and management staff during the disastrous Lankan tour) claimed that Malik ‘had isolated himself, was uncommunicative, and hardly interacted with the players.’
The report also claimed that ‘apart from giving short 5-minute talks to the team, he would go quiet and seem lost in his own thoughts.’
However, the player I was talking to in Dubai (and who was also a member of that team) had told me that Malik (at the time) had fallen into depression because his ideas and tactics ‘would zoom over the coaching staff’s heads)’; and that ‘they (the tactics) were actually way ahead of their time …’
He had then added: ‘I now see similar ideas being implemented by a number of captains around the world …’
Malik remained in the team, though.
Malik’s form began to deteriorate and then, after a disastrous tour of Australia (under the captaincy of Mohammad Yousuf), Malik was banned by the PCB for a year (along with 7 other players).
Though PCB did not entirely explain why the bans were imposed, a report (quietly leaked to the press), suggested that Malik was slapped with a ban because he had not co-operated with the captain (Yousuf) and had tried to lead a rebellion against him.
Pakistan’s star all-rounder, Shahid Afridi, too had testified in front of the board and claimed that Malik had been ‘a bad influence on the team (during the tour) …’
Malik was livid. He took the PCB to court and was successful in getting the ban lifted.
Malik’s form, however, continued to slump. But this didn’t stop the ‘discreet Casanova’ to win over Indian tennis star, Sania Mirza, and marry her in April 2010. His Pakistan cricketing career, though, seemed to be as good as over. He was picked for the turbulent 2010 ‘spot-fixing’ tour of England, but not given a single game.
He was then entirely discarded after this tour.
Most players would have hung up their playing shoes by now, but just as Misbah had done during his years in the wilderness, Malik too, continued to play domestic cricket.
He turned his T20 Sialkot side into one of the most successful teams in the country. This got him selected to play in a few T20 matches for Pakistan. But in each of the few T20 games that he appeared in, he seemed out of sorts and never looked like becoming a permanent fixture in the Pakistan team again.
In May 2015, years after he had played his last major game, Malik was picked to play in a series against the visiting Zimbabwe team. His selection raised a lot of eyebrows and a section of the media questioned why a 33-year-old discard was being preferred over newer talent.
Under tremendous pressure to perform and win his place back in a side that had apparently forgotten about him, Malik smashed a century, signaling that this time he was here to stay.
He continued to pile on the runs in the next two ODI and T20 series, and was finally brought back into the Test squad as well.
His wife was at hand in Sri Lanka, cheering him on, during a series in which he finally proved that his comeback century against the Zimbabweans was not a fluke.
His bowling seemed to have improved as well, and for a 33-year-old, he still looked fit and as agile and flashy as ever, competing well with brilliant young fielders such as Anwar Ali and Mohammad Rizwan on the field.
In an interview that he gave when he was in the middle of piling those 500 runs in 11 innings, he confessed that (as a sportsman), he did feel compelled to make his way back into the Pakistan side every time his wife would do well on the tennis court. He said he was under tremendous pressure.
Well, now that he’s finally managed to come full circle, and will most probably be part of the Pakistan team for quite some time, I wonder if this was the kind of a roller coaster ride he was imagining when he took that gingerly walk into Imran Khan’s coaching clinic 21 years ago?