Another twist in a stormy career

Shoaib Akhtar, like his bowling, had been impetuous. Always in a hurry to make a statement with the ball or mouth, this fast bowler made a huge impact on international cricket. An analysis by Vijay Lokapally.

Reprimanded, fined, punished, banned. Shoaib Akhtar has completed the cycle. A tear-away fast bowler, this maverick cricketer has reached a point in his career where the past is haunting him.

Controversy has remained an inseparable part of Akhtar, known for his temperamental outbursts from the time he came on the scene to rattle batsmen with his dreaded speed. He had this rare quality of looking to dismiss batsmen and not contain them even in a one-day contest. It was typical of Akhtar to have courted trouble.

Denied a central playing contract, Akhtar was obviously seething and looking to ‘bounce’ the officials. In the process, he incurred the wrath of the administration and a five-year ban came his way amidst varied reactions.

Akhtar, like his bowling, had been impetuous. Always in a hurry to make a statement with the ball or mouth, this fast bowler made a huge impact on international cricket. He was aggressive, as any fast bowler would be, but he was different. He did not aim to spill blood on the pitch, but was a much-feared opponent.

In an era when Glenn McGrath and Shane Bond stood out as fast bowlers with a clean action, Akhtar, in private, was hated by batsmen. They would suffer in silence as Akhtar created havoc with speed generated by a debatable action.

One can never forget the horrified look on V. V. S. Laxman’s face after he was castled by Akhtar in a fierce contest. Laxman never saw the ball even as the Indian camp consoled him. Another Indian, bowled neck and crop, was asked what had happened. “Usne run out kar diya (He ran me out).”

When Akhtar did not bowl, Pakistan’s attack seemed to lack teeth. He was an inspiration to his partners. Akhtar would soften up the batsmen and the rest would clean them up. He was an asset for quite some time before he ran into constant altercations with colleagues, media and the administration.

“He is hurling bombs,” the batsmen would say on returning to the comfort of the dressing room. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were swept away by a storm that came in the shape of Akhtar in a Test match in Calcutta. It was Akhtar who dented the confidence of Virender Sehwag in 1999. “I was rattled by the pace,” confessed Sehwag. In later years, it was Akhtar who came to grief at the hands of the same Sehwag, who clouted the fast bowler around like he would a spinner.

Injuries slowed down Akhtar’s pace but he refused to buckle. The spark within him to destroy the batsmen kept him going. But his confrontations on and off the field hardly helped him push his case. Akhtar remained a bad boy of international cricket for many reasons. Yet, he won contracts to play for three different English counties — Somerset, Durham and Worcestershire.

“A colossal waste of talent,” Bob Woolmer had said once when assessing Akhtar’s potential.

Their running battle began when Woolmer suggested to Akhtar that he should shorten his run-up. Akhtar flatly refused. And suffered. It is another matter that he later cut down his run-up and it was so ironic that on the last tour to India, he bowled a few overs in a Test from a very shortened run-up, his pace a sad commentary of Akhtar’s decline. Even a Derek Underwood or a B. S. Chandrasekhar would have bowled quicker; this from a man who had once clocked the fastest ball in history.

When there was talk of fast bowling dying out because of the comfort that the batsmen derived from protective equipment, Akhtar kept the trade alive. Four slips and two gullys, a short leg, and the wicketkeeper standing well back was a thrilling sight as Akhtar would come in thundering from almost near the sightscreen. “Thunderbolts,” one top batsman had remarked after losing his wicket to Akhtar.

Nicknamed Rawalpindi Express, Akhtar could generate scorching pace. He was banned twice for suspect action, but Akhtar did not relent.

He just wanted to bowl fast, perhaps more fast every time he came back from a controversy. The man who terrorised batsmen at the 1999 World Cup, was a mere shadow four years later, being caned by Sehwag and Tendulkar in a crucial match.

Akhtar’s troubles multiplied. He took on the captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and the team management, and in the process got isolated. The physical confrontation with colleague Mohammad Asif made it worse after the doping incident cast an ugly shadow on his achievements. His recent claims of being approached to under-perform only demonstrated the man’s desperation to stay in the limelight, even if for the wrong reasons. Akhtar’s cricketing cycle, as expected, was nearing completion.

Even as he worked on his cricket there was never a doubt that Akhtar, at 32, had begun to fade. The last of the famed fast bowlers of modern cricket appears to have been finally tamed; the trade of hurling the new ball would never be the same.

But Akhtar has been like a phoenix all along, so don’t just write him off yet.

* * * Shoaib Akhtar Timeline Born: 13 August, 1975. Tests: 46, 178 wickets. ODIs: 138, 219 wickets.

December 1999: Two years into his international season was banned for illegal action.

February 2000: Early signs of a troublemaker, banned for a Test following a breach of code on the tour of Australia.

January 2001: Having ignored past instructions, banned for the second time.

November 2002: Furious at taunts from spectators, hurls a bottle into the crowd during a Test in Harare. Banned for one One-Day International.

December 2002: A new dimension to his career. Banned for one Test for tampering with the ball.

May 2003: Tampers with the ball again and banned for two One-Day Internationals and also fined 75 per cent of match fee.

October 2003: Targets lower-order batsman Paul Adams with obscene language during a Test in Lahore. Is banned for one Test and two One-Day Internationals.

December 2004: Verbal exchange with a batsman in Australia costs him 40 per cent of match fee.

January 2005: Excessive appealing in a One-Day International results in a fine of 25 per cent of match fee.

October 2006: Fails dope test, banned for two years. Ban lifted following an appeal.

August 2007: Slapped a 5000 USD fine for leaving training camp without permission. Fine suspended following an appeal.

October 2007: His worst. Banned for 13 One-Day Internationals and put on a two-year probation for five disciplinary breaches, which included a bust-up with team-mate Mohamamed Asif with a cricket bat.

April 2008: Banned for five years for criticising the Pakistan Cricket Board.