From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.13 :: Mar. 31, 2011

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CRICKET / FOCUS/SHOAIB AKHTAR

Highs and sighs

Shoaib Akhtar's exit will leave the Pakistan attack poorer especially after the loss of the tainted duo of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, but what should rankle him is his failure to play the mentor to a bunch of young fast bowlers struggling for guidance after the retirements of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, writes K.C. Vijaya Kumar.

The fast lane with its attendant pitfalls of bright lights and blurred images proved to be the recurring motif in Shoaib Akhtar's colourful career that has drawn to a close. Ever since he burst on the international arena in 1997, the ‘Rawalpindi Express' has drawn attention both for his speed as well as his penchant for trouble. Akhtar has called time on his career and like many cricketers of the past, he has opted to make the World Cup his curtain-call.

That an accomplished batsman like Ricky Ponting admitted that Akhtar was the fastest bowler he has faced would surely gladden the speedster's heart. Earning grudging respect as well as evoking fear among batsmen remained Akhtar's consistent desire right through his playing days.

Akhtar's numbers — 178 wickets from 46 Tests and 247 from 163 ODIs — a figure that could marginally improve before the World Cup concludes — may evoke the words ‘if-only' that is part of any cautionary tale in sport. The Pakistani spearhead though is more than the whispers of statistics, be it his number of scalps or the figures he clocked on the speed gun.

For sheer spectacle, Akhtar was unparalleled during the sporadic appearances he made for Pakistan over a 14-year period. The long run-up culminating in that powerful release at the bowling crease. The ‘Eagle-has-landed' wave of the arms after dismantling stumps that left batsmen shell-shocked. The drawl in his words and an accent that was surprising for a man born and bred in Pakistan's Punjab. These were all vignettes that added to his larger-than-life persona with its attendant warts and a few moments of cricketing glory.

Akhtar caught the imagination when he castled Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar with successive in-swinging yorkers that stunned Kolkata's Eden Gardens into silence during a Test match in 1999. The aura got augmented during his exploits in the World Cup at England in the same year with the acme being his varied spells against New Zealand that prised out Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming and Chris Harris in the semi-final.

Another ‘shiver-me-timbers' moment was when he grabbed five wickets for 21 runs in a Test at Colombo in 2002 with the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Ponting and the Waughs — Steve and Mark — being forced to cede their batting supremacy. Pakistan however lost the match and Akhtar struggled between the extremes of speed and injury over the last decade.

Between knocking over batsmen and visits to the orthopaedic surgeon to heal battered limbs, Akhtar stayed in the news with an avoidable touch of notoriety. He was sent back home from an Australian tour in 2005 for poor attitude. Later he was mixed up in a drug issue after he tested positive for a banned substance. Worse was to follow when he had a scuffle with fellow speed-merchant Mohammad Asif and in 2008, he was banned by the Pakistan Cricket Board for venting his ire at its officials.

The ban was subsequently over-turned and Akhtar finally found his last flicker in the current World Cup. Factoring in the battle-field effect that his body has suffered after his efforts to be the quickest among the fast bowlers club that has members like Brett Lee, Shane Bond, Shaun Tait, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, Akhtar finally decided to press the pause button, an option he never believed in when he was at the top of his searing run-up.

That the fires are still raging inside him was evident in the manner in which he recently knocked out Mahela Jayawardene's stumps. The erratic nature that has forced him to stumble many a time was also on view subsequently when Ross Taylor and company hammered him without pity. Perhaps that bout of batting savagery may have forced Akhtar to introspect and walk towards his cricketing twilight.

His roller-coaster ride had surely caught the fancy of many and during his last Test played at Bangalore in 2007, Akhtar had two visitors. The young ladies with a film background were keen to chronicle his life through a Bollywood film and Akhtar, being the limelight moth, had reportedly evinced interest. The project never materialised but it summed up his life that was played out on a giant stage.

Akhtar's exit will leave the Pakistan attack poorer especially after the loss of the tainted-duo of Asif and Mohammad Amir but what should rankle him is his failure to play the mentor to a bunch of young fast bowlers struggling for guidance after the retirements of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Akhtar's has been a career of a few highs and innumerable sighs.

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THE AKHTAR FILE

Shoaib Akhtar's career timeline after the Pakistan pace bowler announced his retirement from international cricket after the World Cup.

1996: Removed from the team for the Sahara Cup against India in Canada on grounds of indiscipline.

1997: Akhtar makes his Test debut against the West Indies in November at his home ground in Rawalpindi, taking two wickets.

February 1999: Akhtar dismisses Indian greats Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off successive deliveries in the Calcutta Test, which Pakistan win to lift the Asian Test championship. Earns nickname of “Rawalpindi Express.”

December 1999: Akhtar's action called for the first time, but the International Cricket Council (ICC) allows him to carry on as only his bouncer causes concern.

March 2000: Banned for one ODI and fined for reaching team hotel late in Pakistan.

2001: Akhtar's action called for second time after taking five wickets in New Zealand.

November 2001: Action called for third time in Sharjah, after which the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) carries out an examination at the University of Western Australia which concludes that his action is the result of “unique physical characteristics” which form the basis of him being cleared to continue.

November 2002: Reprimanded for ball-tampering and banned for one ODI after throwing water bottle at a spectator in Zimbabwe.

May 2003: Banned for two ODIs and fined 75 percent of match fee for ball-tampering during a tri-series in Sri Lanka

March 2003: Akhtar bowled at 100mph in Pakistan's match against England at Cape Town, becoming the first bowler in the history of the game to break the 100mph barrier.

October 2003: Banned for one Test and two ODIs for abusing Paul Adams in the first Test against South Africa, after taking eight wickets in the match to help Pakistan win. In the second Test against New Zealand, helps Pakistan win with seven-wicket burst (11 in the match).

March 2004: Akhtar accused of feigning injury after Pakistan loses Test series to archrival India 2-1.

October 2006: Akhtar and Mohammad Asif test positive for banned steroid nandrolone. Akhtar banned for two years and Asif for one year, bans which were lifted on appeal.

September 2007: Akhtar hits Asif with a bat, two days before the World Twenty20 in South Africa. A month later the PCB fine and ban him for 13 one-day matches.

January 2008: Excluded from list of central contracts. A fuming Akhtar criticises the PCB. A disciplinary committee bans him for five years. Punishment reduced to 18 months on appeal, but fine imposed.

May 2009: PCB drop him from World Twenty20 squad.

January 2011: Selected in Pakistan's World Cup squad, despite coach Waqar Younis saying he is not 100 percent fit.

March 2011: Akhtar announces he will retire after the World Cup.



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