A question mark over his future

HE is fast and furious to some, wild and reckless to the others. Shoaib Akhtar can be destructive with the ball, he can also prove self-destructive.

S. DINAKAR

Shoaib Akhtar was cleared by the Medical Commission of the charges of faking an injury during the Rawalpindi Test against India. — Pic. AFP-

HE is fast and furious to some, wild and reckless to the others. Shoaib Akhtar can be destructive with the ball, he can also prove self-destructive.

The Pakistani has one of the most impressive run-ups — long, fluent and rhythmical — in world cricket. He can run into trouble in a rather spectacular fashion too.

For Pakistan cricket, he's either the popular hero or the high profile villain. Akhtar does provoke extreme reactions.

When he is buzzing he can decimate the best of line-ups with his scorching pace and vicious swing. But then he can so easily go off the boil, appearing listless and wayward.

There is no dearth of colour, drama or excitement though when he thunders in and lets it rip. It's gripping, engaging action all the way even if his `action' does raise an eyebrow or two from time to time.

Akhtar is at the receiving end these days. There is a question mark over his future in the Pakistan team. Quite clearly his career is at the crossroads.

News about a growing rift with captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, his leaving-the-field-act during the Rawalpindi Test, and the subsequent spat with the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), has meant that the paceman faces an uncertain phase.

Though a PCB appointed Medical Commission did clear him of the charges of faking an injury during the Rawalpindi Test — x-ray revealed a stress fracture in the ribs — Akhtar is not quite in the clear.

In a warning to the temperamental paceman, PCB has told Akhtar that his attitude in the coming days would be closely monitored and he would have to prove his fitness in the domestic competitions. A far cry from the time when Akhtar was the unquestioned supremo of the attack.

There has been news about the growing rift between Shoaib Akhtar and his captain Inzamam-ul-Haq. -- Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

Akhtar still means much to the Pakistan bowling, after the departure of the two great Ws, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. With his pace and fire, he is the spearhead, the kingpin, the hub.

With Pakistan in the midst of a critical transitional phase, Akhtar does have to pull his weight as a senior bowler who can inspire the younger names in the attack, much like what a Wasim or a Waqar used to accomplish effortlessly.

Gaze down Akhtar's career though and you would discover that it is littered with temperamental flare-ups, controversies over action, allegations of ball tampering, and charges of high-handed behaviour.

This is precisely why he needs to mellow down, without forgoing the aggressive streak that is so essential to his kind of bowling. Easier said than done for the merchants of extreme speed are often a volatile bunch.

There is a feeling that if Akhtar can keep his emotions under check, he could usher in an element of consistency in his bowling, an ingredient that was so lacking in the series against India.

While his speed gives him an immediate advantage over his rivals, it will have to be well directed to make him a constant threat. If Akhtar gets his rhythm and his radar right, he can be a handful, making deep inroads into the line-up with his swinging yorkers, lethal short-pitched deliveries, and the mean away-swingers that he can unleash from time to time.

He also needs to carry the likes of Mohammed Sami, Shabbir Ahmed and Umar Gul with him, for with 125 scalps in 32 Tests and 167 victims in 103 ODI's, Akhtar does have the experience to don the mantle of being the side's No.1 bowler.

Truth to tell, he did operate with much passion and pace in the Rawalpindi Test, before deciding to leave the arena rather abruptly during the post-tea session on the third day. Figures of three for 47 off 21.2 hostile overs do him no discredit.

After snaring Virender Sehwag with the first ball of the innings, Akhtar removed Sachin Tendulkar with a beast of a delivery — a sharply rising ball around the off-stump — on day three. Then he ended V.V.S. Laxman's entertaining innings, sending down a full length ball of shattering pace.

The fast bowler explaining his case to the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Shaharyar Khan. -- Pic. AP-

He soon departed from the field citing wrist and back pain. And there were several uncomfortable questions asked when he blasted a 14-ball 28 on the fourth day without appearing in any discomfort.

Inzamam made no attempt to hide his feelings about being let down by his strike bowler in a decider. Things had been simmering between the captain and the fast bowler in the series and they boiled over during the last match.

Akhtar was unhappy with Inzamam's field placements, which tended to be rather defensive, while the skipper felt his premier fast bowler was lacking in commitment. It is mandatory that Inzamam and Akhtar settle their differences soon and put an end to a climate of mutual suspicion.

Meanwhile, Inzamam is keen on knowing Akhtar's exact fitness situation for he does not want the events of the series against India to be repeated in future. As captain he cannot be grudged his right to know about any injury or the lack of it in a key player.

The PCB, itself under the hammer from the Senate Panel probing into the causes for the debacle against India, is not exactly pleased with Akhtar either. The fast bowler, according to PCB Chairman Shaharyar Khan, was to have rested in England for two weeks and then sent another scan report to the Board before representing Durham in the English county circuit. When Akhtar turned out for Durham soon after landing in England, the PCB chief saw red.

There is still an element of uncertainty about the nature of the injury itself. While there have been differing opinions from the three radiologists set up by the Medical Commission, Akhtar claims that the scan done in the United Kingdom confirms a fracture on the eleventh rib of the lower left side.

The man from Rawalpindi has come through several critical points in his career. None bigger than when the University of Western Australia cleared his action on the grounds that he had hyper extensive joints. For Akhtar, that verdict represented a lifeline.

When he is buzzing, Akhtar can indeed be an influential customer. The Australians in Colombo, 2002, and the Kiwis in Wellington this year, were at the receiving end of some quick and deadly reverse-swinging bowling from Akhtar.

The resilient Aussies still managed to squeeze out a victory in a dramatic Test at the P. Saravanamuthu Stadium. The New Zealanders, coasting until Akhtar breathed fire, succumbed to a Test series defeat.

With seven years of international cricket behind, the 29-year-old Akhtar should realise that he would have to string together those moments of magic more often. The Pakistani has to discard his obsession for speed — he has already achieved his burning desire to crack the 100mph — and focus on putting the ball in the right areas.

From the Man on the Fast Lane, he will have to be the Man on the Sensible Lane. Akhtar has to shed the `bad boy' image and fast.

The Rawalpindi Express has been letting off too much steam. Perhaps it's time for a more, modern, sleeker, calmer engine to propel the train forward.