Now that the Pakistan Cricket Board has shamefully leaked private information to drive one more nail into the coffin of Shoaib Akhtar’s career, it’s perhaps time to reflect on the career of one of the sport’s true mavericks. I interviewed him for Inside Sport in 2004, and the article is reproduced below. In an increasingly PR-driven world, I always found Shoaib’s candour refreshing. And amusing as well.
India, early November 2004. As Inside Sport pulls into the swanky portico of the Taj Lands End in suburban Mumbai, my loquacious cabbie – having sussed out correctly that I’m not staying there – asks who I’ve come to meet. When I tell him Shoaib Akhtar, fastest bowler on the planet, his face wrinkles up and he lets fly with a torrent of curses. “Haraami [bastard]!” he says with a flourish at the end of his diatribe. I shoot him a quizzical glance, and by manner of explanation he mutters something about Shoaib’s alleged dalliances with Bollywood screen sirens.
The man has a reputation for enigma. Six months earlier, India’s first series in Pakistan since 1989 was tantalisingly poised heading into the third and final Test at Rawalpindi and, after the hosts were shot out for 224, Shoaib bowled with a venom and purpose that had eluded him for much of the tour. He had Sachin Tendulkar caught behind for just one, and then – after VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid had resisted for more than two hours – he nailed Laxman with a full toss that swung out viciously. At 4-261, with Sourav Ganguly new to the crease, the match was there for the taking. However, his first ball to the Indian captain changed the complexion of the game for all the wrong reasons. Shoaib fell awkwardly on his follow-through and left the field clutching his left wrist, though reports filtering into the press box later that evening suggested he had hurt his back.
With Shoaib removed from the equation, India piled on 600 and, shortly after lunch on the fourth day, he walked out to bat with an innings defeat beckoning. He smashed 28 from 14 balls, with two huge sixes, but by the time he holed out, all eyes were on the Pakistani dressing-room balcony, where captain Inzamam-ul-Haq sat watching with barely concealed anger, his face contorted with rage.
At the post-match press conference, which resembled an inquest, Inzamam outdid Allan Border in the Captain Grumpy stakes. When pressed about Shoaib’s injury, he said tersely, “I was surprised at the way he batted today.” That one line was enough to send the media into a lather and over the course of the next month, there were enough conspiracy theories to keep two Warren Commissions busy.
When I ask Shoaib about it, he just skims the surface. “I don’t think I ever had a problem with Inzamam,” he says diplomatically. “He’s the best batsman we’ve ever produced.
“I don’t know what came out in the papers. It was disappointing and painful that people doubted my integrity. It’s very sad that they had to put me through a medical trial and all that. It was ridiculous that you doubt someone’s honesty, especially a player like me who gives his all for the country.”
Shoaib’s differences with his leader go far beyond injuries, feigned or otherwise. As Mumbai’s smart set can testify, Shoaib has always loved a party, while Inzamam leads a team that has increasingly turned to religion as succour to recent scandals that have plagued Pakistan cricket. For Shoaib, and Bob Woolmer, his new coach, the bar isn’t necessarily out of bounds but, for most of his team-mates, watering holes are a Forbidden City. “They do socialise in their own way,” says Shoaib, “but I wouldn’t know about their personal lives.”
“We often pray a lot” is as much as he’ll divulge when you ask whether he feels at ease in an oasis of abiding faith.
We’re on the 19th floor, and Shoaib, lounging on a couch in blue jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt that hugs his muscled torso, peers out into the night sky of Mumbai. He’s pondering one of his favourite subjects – the unbearable burden of being Pakistan’s leading strike bowler after the retirements of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. “They win because of me, and they lose because of me,” he says wearily when asked to explain how he is held by parts of the international cricket media. “People are always looking for scapegoats. If I keep winning matches for them, they will sing songs for me. But when we don’t win,” he pauses, smiling, “I don’t know what I can do about that.”
What makes him such a target? “I think I’m the biggest patriot in the Pakistani dressing-room,” he says without a trace of irony. “The biggest patriot also becomes the biggest traitor. I don’t know, really.”
Part of the reason can be traced back to the last embers of the Wasim-Waqar era, when none-too-subtle remarks made by Shoaib angered fans and media alike. In an interview with an English newspaper in mid 2003, he said, “Imagine if I was playing for Australia. With [Glenn] McGrath and [Jason] Gillespie softening them up, then I come on, I’d have got more wickets than anyone ever, mate. Because when I play for Pakistan with Wasim and Waqar, they are in decline. They were great but they’re not match-winning bowlers any more. Wasim has not won a match since 1996. So I have to make it all happen on my own.”
The legendary Wasim, bane of Australian batsmen for a generation, didn’t dignify that pompous blast with a response, but Waqar’s reaction was acidic. “It’s ridiculous, Shoaib coming out in the papers saying he’s going to do this or do that,” he said. “He’s been doing it for a few years now and he never lives up to it and it looks pretty ugly. He performs to his ability once a year – and then he has the nerve to compare himself with McGrath. He was saying last week that if he’d been born Australian, he’d have taken more wickets. It might have been better for Pakistan if he had been born in Australia.
beyond what he’s capable of. He likes to be in the papers and be flash – but he just doesn’t deliver on the field . . . he’s always saying, ‘I’m going to do this or I’m going to do that.’ Just bowl, mate. Just stop talking and bowl.”
Such ego clashes and bad blood decimated Pakistan’s World Cup hopes in 2003. But Shoaib doesn’t take the bait.
“Look, he [Waqar] is not in the team any more,” he tells IS. “And I have nothing against him. He’s been an inspiration for me and a great bowler for Pakistan. It was an honour to play with Wasim and Waqar. I made my name by playing with them . . . and I made my own personality living among them. I’m a different breed.”
Shoaib is certainly a small stockpile of contradictions. The same bloke who tells you that he doesn’t worry about things such as breaking the 100mph barrier once said in an interview, “God made me a supreme athlete. I cannot compromise that. I have a mission to cross the 100mph barrier.” The man who calls himself a humble individual once pronounced that the 1999 World Cup “basically belonged to me. I was a massive presence,” ignoring trivial details such as Steve Waugh’s 120 at Headingley, and Australia’s crushing victory in the final.
The dichotomy also is evident on the field. For all the posturing, Pakistan’s self-styled Atlas has let his shoulders droop far too often. His strike-rate in Tests, 44.5 balls per wicket, is second only to Waqar among the modern-day greats, yet when it really mattered – in Australia five years ago, and at home against India earlier this year – he was a wan shadow of what he can be. In the most-hyped one-day game of our age, the India-Pakistan World Cup encounter at Centurion last year, he was carted for 72 from his ten overs, with Tendulkar savaging him to the tune of 18 runs in his first over – all this after he had declared, “Against India, I’m going to go after the bigger names, I’m not going to make it easy for them.”
Perhaps Shoaib’s enigmatic, sometimes lazy, performances are just symptomatic of the inconsistency that has plagued Indian and Pakistani cricket down the years. “Our culture, our systems . . . our society is very inconsistent,” he says. “It’s in our blood. Consistency comes with professionalism. And we lack that. I’m being honest with you. You have your good days and your bad days, I accept that. But each day, you should be getting the best out of yourself.”
Shoaib, 29, was born in Rawalpindi, near the Afghanistan border. His childhood was like most others in this troubled part of the world, spent running around or in games of football and hockey. “I wasn’t spoiled but I was certainly naughty,” he says. “I’m sure I must have done things which I don’t remember now, but which my parents do.”
He insists he had no great ambitions as a child, though he worshipped at one particular altar like millions of others. “Imran Khan was the biggest icon in our country, and for kids like me, he was the man,” he says, a trace of awe still in his voice. “The first time I met him, when I was playing domestic cricket as an 18-year-old, he shook my hand and said, ‘Well done.’ It was very encouraging.”
When he was picked for the Pakistan-A team’s tour of England in 1996–’97, elevation to the senior squad appeared a certainty. He did well, but his lightning-quick bowling on the pitch was dampened by questions being asked about his temperament off it.
Shoaib swears that, for once, it wasn’t his fault. “The tour finished and we had three days off. Our manager, Agha Zahid, said, ‘Now, you’re free. The tour’s over, and you’ve done a great job.’ We hadn’t won that many games but there were many good individual performances, and he told us that we could go out and have a good time. He gave us our flight times and told us when we’d have to be back.
“I went to Birmingham to visit family. When I came back, I found that he had filed a complaint against me, saying that I was missing from the hotel for three days. The only mistake I made was not telling him I’d be staying with relatives for two days.” His voice drops a few decibels. “I’d been named in the national squad for the Sahara Cup against India in Toronto, but after that, they dropped me. I still find it hard to understand that anyone could play with your career and future like that. [Agha’s] complaints to the board were very disappointing. I don’t think I was a troublemaker at all but it was a bad start for me. I was a young guy doing well for himself, and he basically ruined the first phase of my career by giving me the ‘indisciplined’ stamp.”
It’s a label that Shoaib has never been able to tear away, though he protests that he’s as professional as anyone else. “I’ve always been to practice on time,” he says, before immediately contradicting himself. “Occasionally, I’ve missed the bus, but that happens to all of us. But usually I’m always in the bus before time.”
The disciplinary nadir came in New Zealand earlier this year, when Shoaib was caught jet-skiing on Lake Wakapitu after sitting out the first two one-day internationals with an injury. When put on the spot, Shoaib does his best to extricate himself. “I missed the First Test at Hamilton because of a calf injury I picked up in a side game, but then I had injections and played in the Second Test [he annihilated New Zealand with figures of 11-78],” he stammers. “Then, I got hit on the box, and missed two one-day games. After the second one, I felt a bit better, and though it was still quite painful, I thought I’d jet-ski.
“Probably not the best thing to do,” he adds, almost as an afterthought. “I knew I would be fit for the third match, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”
For once, though, the team management – perhaps mindful of how he had bailed them out in the Wellington Test – took an indulgent view, with Javed Miandad, the coach, saying that the whole team had enjoyed the helicopter rides and jet-skis in such a picturesque locale.
You’d expect a man whose every step has been shadowed by controversy to carry scars from a few psychological wounds, but Shoaib insists that none hurt as much as the allegations of chucking that stalled his career in the aftermath of some stunning displays at the 1999 World Cup.
“That wrecked me, it wrecked my career,” he says, looking down at the carpet. “Physically, I went down. I couldn’t concentrate on cricket. I was out a year. When I came back, there was another [chucking] allegation. It was really difficult for me.”
Between May 2000 and January 2002, he played only one Test, at Lord’s, missing 15 others. But those who crucified him weren’t aware of what an anatomical anomaly he is. Hyper-extended wrists and knees are just the start. His elbow can bend back almost 45 degrees from the vertical, not a sight for the squeamish, and his feet are utterly devoid of arches, which meant that he didn’t walk properly till he was five. In the English newspaper interview that earned the ire of his fellow countrymen, he had spoken of how perplexed the doctors at the University of Western Australia had been. “In a way they were so pissed off with me,” he said. “They freaked out. ‘How can you be the fastest bowler in the world? You are just pathetically abnormal.’ They measured each single thing about me. They discovered that, where a normal person’s joints move about 20 per cent, maximum, my elbow can move 42 per cent. Same with all my joints.
“I was stunned to hear that someone could ban me on the phone,” he says. “I think [then-ICC president] Jagmohan Dalmiya helped me out. They had a problem with my bouncer, and he said that bouncers were not even allowed in one-dayers, so I could play those. But then I went to Sharjah and the West Indies and got injured because I’d been playing consistently, constantly.”
Once again, though, Shoaib has his facts wrong. In the months leading up to that injury, he had skipped two of eight Tests, and averaged less than 31 overs a match while also missing one-day tournaments in Toronto and Sharjah. But he stands his ground. “It was too many games,” he says stubbornly. “I broke my ribs, missed a county season. Then I broke my knee, which forced me to sit out another ten months. Everything was falling apart.
“Every time I went out there, I had to prove something. It was a sad time for me. It was written in my destiny that I have to go through bad times. It made me a better person, all the controversies and all the wrong things said about me. It made me more determined too, I’d say.”
It was also a lonely time. “You notice during the bad times who’s on your side,” he says. “I had to go through it on my own. It’s for your own betterment.” His face lights up only when I mention Imran. “He was always on my side. It meant a lot to me.”
Shoaib also maintains that his problems were directly related to mental turmoil. “You have to be tough to go out for training in 45-degree heat,” he says. “Mentally I wasn’t there; didn’t want to train. I didn’t even know whether I would play cricket again or not. See . . . I was either banned, or unfit, or someone was trying to kick me out of the team. It was difficult.”
However, put to him that his reputation as a serial sickie taker is justified, and he boils with indignation. Since his debut in 1997–’98, he has played just 33 Tests, missing 29, and 118 one-day internationals, missing 90, but he’d rather put that down to the demands of modern-day cricket: “I have missed a lot of Tests, without a doubt. But look. We’re touring Australia for two-and-a-half months. Ten days later, we come to India, and ten days after that’s over, we’re off to the Caribbean. And right after that, some of us might play a county season. Tell me, a bowler like myself who runs 35 to 40 yards in a sprint . . . can he stay fit for that long? I’m not a machine. Even machines have to go back to the workshop to get fixed.
“Quicks are finished in cricket,” he says, with no preamble. “The amount of cricket we’re playing nowadays, you hardly see any quick bowlers any more. The two quickest bowlers, who can consistently bowl at 95 or 96 miles an hour, are Brett Lee and me. You can’t see any others. Shane Bond’s gone. Harmison’s come in and done well, but Lee’s been injured for several months. It’s absolute nonsense that we play so many one-dayers, 35 or 40 of them, apart from about 14 Tests a year. On top of that, to make money, you go to play for a county. Fast bowlers will disappear soon. If you want them to come in, and have it like it used to be, you have to play less cricket. And if you can’t do that, then give your fast bowlers rest.”
He takes aim at the sport’s administrators: “The captain and a senior guy should be with the board when the itinerary is made for us. They [the officials] are not the ones playing in the heat. Weather, travelling, hard grounds, jet-lag – they don’t know anything about it. They have no idea.”
Shoaib bristles when I ask whether there’s still a place in the game for pure speed, what with the metronomic but scarcely express McGrath having been the outstanding pace bowler of his era. “You have different breeds of bowler,” he says. “I cannot be McGrath. McGrath cannot be like me. Of course, he’s a far better bowler than I am. But I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t bowled fast.”
And, nearly 30, is he too old to contemplate hurling down thunderbolts? He smiles. “It’s the peak time,” he says. “You’re sensible, you’re experienced and you’re still young.”
This is a man, though, who has never belonged to the Peter Heine-Jeff Thomson school of fast bowling. Having dealt Gary Kirsten a fearsome blow underneath the eye in 2003, he poleaxed Brian Lara at the ICC Champions Trophy in September. “I’m not excited when I hit someone,” he says earnestly. “I’m the first person who runs to pick up that guy and apologise. My greatest wish was to bowl against Lara, which I did, and I’m disappointed that I hit him.”
Shoaib’s need for speed was best illustrated in two separate events that catapulted him into cricketing superstardom. During the Kolkata Test in March 1999, he clean-bowled Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar after Wasim had opted for him in place of Waqar. “I remember being angry. I remember how ambitious I was; how I wanted to reach my goals,” he recalls. “I was so passionate about getting Sachin out. I had a bet with Saqlain [Mushtaq]. He said he would get him out, and I said, ‘No. I’m going to get him.’ And then he said I wouldn’t be good enough to. And I got him first ball.”
Three months later, he wowed the World Cup with searing pace and 16 wickets. Yet, when you ask for his fondest memory of those four weeks, he grins and says, “The first ball I bowled. Sherwin Campbell top-edged it for six over third man.”
The final against Australia – four wicketless overs for 37 – was a dampener, as was his first trip to Australia in 1999–2000 when six Test wickets cost him 67.66 apiece. “I did well in the one-dayers,” he says defensively. “Half the time, in a Test match as a young guy, you don’t even know what you’re doing. It’s hard to know how to bowl in Australia unless you’ve been there before. It was a great learning experience. When I went back there for three one-dayers in 2002, I was man-of-the-series.”
Did he get carried away by the pace-friendly pitches, against batsmen who play the short ball better than most? “It does happen,” he admits. “You have to tour Australia once to understand how the pitches behave.” This summer he says he’ll “bowl the channels and not pitch too short”, and that his greatest motivation could come from Australian batsmen not shy of having a word in the middle.
“They help me out,” he says with a grin. “If someone keeps chatting to me, it keeps me going. You could see from my performance in Colombo [he took five Australian wickets for just 21 runs in October 2002], which was probably my finest spell.”
But what of the Sharjah Test that followed when Matthew Hayden spanked a remorseless 119 during a seven-hour vigil coloured by plenty of invective directed Shoaib’s way? “It was 51 degrees,” says Shoaib with a sigh. “You must be a donkey to run in and bowl in that heat. It was brutal, and it was nonsense that you were bowling fast in those conditions.”
So who is the real Shoaib? When this writer first met him in 2002, he reminded me of the angry young men that Amitabh Bachchan – India’s answer to Marlon Brando – used to portray on screen in his 1970s Bollywood heyday, an intriguing mixture of old-world values and revolutionary fervour. He’s added a few layers of poise since then, and he also engages the grey matter before mouthing off like he was once prone to. Beneath the bravado, though, you can still glimpse a fragile young boy, still not completely at ease with the big bad world, and wary of those who have beaten up on him in the past. There’s still a cloak of insecurity, unsurprising given that each time he steps out onto the park, the mission – in part – is to prove someone wrong.
The provocative statements and trumpet solos are more a defence mechanism than anything else, an attempt to build up confidence ahead of tests he feels he might fail. Those who have sat at a bar with him will testify to his generosity of spirit, and in an Australian team, where the cult of the individual is secondary to the idea of mateship, he might have found his moorings far more easily.
“Those who know me are the best people to answer that,” he ventures when asked what he’s really like. “I’m a very humble person. I love kids, I love riding bikes, love doing adventurous things like scuba diving, bungee jumps and skydiving. I like to live my life without wasting it.”
Like Diego Maradona, another flawed genius, Shoaib has spent much of his adult life in denial, especially with regard to his fitness and role in the team. Like the great Argentinean, he has frequently reminded onlookers of a thoroughbred with blinkers, utterly oblivious to everything but his own path.
William Hazlitt, the Shakespearean scholar, wrote almost 200 years ago: “It is his rash haste, his violent impetuosity, his blindness to everything but the dictates of his passions or affections, that produces all his misfortunes, that aggravates his impatience of them, that enforces our pity for him.” He was dissecting the character of King Lear, but those words also perfectly describe a man who can be – with shiny red ball in hand – a real force of nature.