One-man strike force

When Shoaib Akhtar is accurate he can be a nightmare. Of his 118 dismissals in Test cricket, 52 have been bowled and 23 leg before, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

IN Pakistan they call him Shoaib Actor. Given his tendency to drift into a world of his own, Shoaib Akhtar quite justifies this tag. His put-on accent when addressing the media and his escapades when on tours have provided juicy stuff for the media. And then there's his bowling, which, at the disconcerting pace that he commands, can destroy a team, and not just a batsman. So, when the Indians travel to Pakistan for the much-hyped cricket tour, the batsmen will have a ferocious opponent to deal with.

— Pic. AFP

Akhtar is a wonderful character who has enriched world cricket from the time he made news as a tearaway fast bowler. The Rawalpindi Express cannot be an appropriate description of a man who, in his own opinion, bowls at jet pace in contemporary cricket. Pity, there were no speed guns when Frank Tyson and Jeff Thomson made the batsmen hop around. It would have made comparisons among these bowlers meaningful.

Will he have an impact on the series across the border? Most experts concede he would. "He could be the difference," remarked Sanjay Manjrekar. Quite a significant statement coming from a man who is regarded as a keen student of the game. Former Pakistan greats Imran Khan and Wasim Akram share Manjrekar's opinion.

"Nothing to fear," was Mohinder Amarnath's opinion. Knowing the legendary courage of the Amarnaths, it would be a good idea for the team to hold a session with this gutsy batsman who reserved his best for Pakistan.

The Indians are preparing for the onslaught. Sachin Tendulkar is training at the MIG ground in Mumbai with former teammate Sameer Dighe behind the bowling machine, tackling bouncers and yorkers and perfecting the cover-drives; Virender Sehwag is spending time with coach A. N. Sharma at the Vikaspuri Government School, fine-tuning the pull and hook shots; Rahul Dravid is geared up; so is V. V. S. Laxman, who enjoys the largest following across the border.

Skipper Inzamam and Shoaib seem to be on the same wavelength. — Pic. AFP-

The Akhtar factor cannot be brushed aside, fully understanding the levels he can rise to with the backing of a partisan crowd. For a fast bowler, there can be nothing more thrilling than the vociferous support from the crowd. In Pakistan, the Indians will have a new experience in store for them. "Not one man will applaud," warns Yashpal Sharma, who made three trips to Pakistan.

Memories of the Indian debacle in 1982-83 owing to the mysterious spells by Imran Khan may be unknown to this generation of cricketers, but Akhtar reaching those standards cannot be ruled out. Imran would rattle the batsmen with his indippers and the inswinger that would sneak in like a snake. But Akhtar is different. He is quite capable of dominating the opposition with dreaded pace, quite similar to what Tyson had achieved in Australia in 1954 and Thomson most of his career.

Akhtar is a highly temperamental bowler, just the kind who can go for runs in one session and lay the opposition flat in the next. Remember the Test at Calcutta when he stunned the audience by removing Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off consecutive balls to change the course of the match? Just like he did in New Zealand on the last tour, ripping through the opposition at a shattering pace.

In contemporary cricket, Akhtar is in the superfast category along with Brett Lee and Shane Bond. At various points, these bowlers have outdone one another, but Akhtar is regarded as the quickest, and the most dangerous. There is no doubt that Bond has the cleanest of actions among the three and that makes him special.

Returning to the series in Pakistan, the Indians will have to contend with an inspired attack. Akhtar has an active partner in Muhammad Sami in running through the opposition. There is also Shabbir Ahmed, who has corrected his action. Sami has a clean action and a bright future. What separates them is the fitness factor where Akhtar is constantly under scrutiny. He has suffered breakdowns in the past but has staged strong comebacks too. Another distinguishing trait is Akhtar's dubious reputation of inviting trouble from the Match Referee. He is the biggest offender of the code of conduct set by the International Cricket Council.

Akhtar will have to raise his game for Pakistan to shock India. Shock because the Indian batting is far too strong to collapse twice in one Test to the same bowler. "The speed factor cannot be ignored but we have the batsmen to deal with him," said Sachin Tendulkar, who famously hit Akhtar for a six over point at the last World Cup. Such was the lashing for Akhtar from Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag in that one over that the Rawalpindi Express lost the confidence to bowl his next over. He just refused and skipper Waqar Younis had to take over.

The Pakistanis believe that Akhtar can blast the Indians away. "Well, let us see. Let me tell you that the pace can cause discomfort only for a brief initial period. Once you adjust to the pace it is up to you really. He is just another bowler and he too will have to earn our wickets. I'm not at all thinking about Akhtar. It's too early to say anything now. There is too much hype about this series and I would say that we need to just concentrate on the cricket and forget creating needless pressures for everyone. It's not that we have not faced fast bowlers in the past," said Sehwag.

What could work in India's favour is the wayward streak in Akhtar when he holds the new ball. It excites him to bowl fast. He was once asked if he would be interested in bowling the fastest ball? "No," was his strong reply. And then he went on to bowl the fastest ball in history. So, it will be vital for the Indian batsmen to pounce on the offerings whenever Akhtar indulges in his notorious wayward streaks throwing the basics to the wind. But when he is accurate he can be a nightmare. Of his 118 dismissals in Test cricket, 52 have been bowled and 23 leg before. No wonder he says, "I don't care about the pitch because I'm quick in the air." And he is a different fast bowler. Blood on the pitch does not excite him and off the field he comes off as quite a friendly guy.

His big boast before the last World Cup match against India is still fresh. At the end of it, his fans in Pakistan were shocked. Their hero had been savaged by Tendulkar, and the impression has stayed to this day. But the Pakistani is wisely not throwing any challenge at the Indians this time. He has learnt to respect quality batsmen and India has plenty of them to confront the menacing Pakistani. They are no more vulnerable against genuine pace. Wary, yes but not timid, as in the past, when the batsmen did not have adequate protection. Akhtar will have to be accurate and fast, and fit, to make an impact on the Indian batsmen. An exciting bowler who can be lethal on his day, crashing the ball into the ribs with Sourav Ganguly a special target. He may not be crafty like Akram but is dangerous like Imran, exploding the ball off the turf or swinging it like a banana, not to forget the killer yorker. Akhtar has a reputation to defend, and the Indians have a goal to achieve. As one cricketer said, it will be interesting to see Sehwag face up to Akhtar — only one shall live to tell the tale, as they say.

There are two sensational deliveries associated with Akhtar, his action dubious on both the occasions. The first was when he castled Stephen Fleming in the 1999 World Cup semifinal. The batsman never saw the ball. And the second was a snorter that surprised Tendulkar at the last World Cup. If only this aspect of his bowling had been above doubt. Let us leave the debate for a later stage. For the moment, let us look forward to Sehwag slamming Akhtar. Or the Pakistani sending the stumps hurtling. Either way, a great cricketing sight.

"THE way I look at the series, it is going to be a contest between their strong and experienced batting line-up and our bowling attack. If our batsmen put some runs on the board it will be a terrific contest because myself, Muhammad Sami, Shabbir Ahmed have started to work well as a pace unit."

** "They have done extremely well in Australia. But I think in Pakistan it would be a different game and a new contest. They have to prove themselves once again they are the best."

** "While the media may like to bill it as a Shoaib vs Tendulkar battle, I think it is about how our bowling fares against their entire batting line-up. It is not just about one batsman. They have all played well in Australia."

** "I have improved a lot since then (the match against India in the last World Cup). I have worked harder on my fitness. I am more consistent. That match is over and you have now look forward to this series."

** "I am not averse to having a good time or being friendly with them (Indian players) outside the field. I think we can use this series to send out a clear message we can be friends. And we as a nation have to show the world anyone can come and play in Pakistan without any security concerns or worries."

** "I am there for the team. And obviously I want to perform and get wickets. But it would be a mistake to just depend on me. If we play as a team we will win. Cricket is a different game every day. We have to start from scratch, they have to start from scratch once again."