Friday, May 18, 2007

It's Time To Say Goodbye To Shoaib Akhtar

Tap, tap. Your bat rests just behind your right foot, between middle and leg. You squint your eyes. He begins his run, from what you convince yourself must surely be at least a hundred meters. Tap, tap. You tell yourself to loosen your grip; the tension is making you hold your bat too hard. Tap, tap. He's closer now, about ten steps behind the umpire. His eyes are focused, his hair streaming behind him. Just before your bat taps the ground for the last time, you remind yourself: Keep the backlift low. Don't get stuck on the crease. Leave on length, not line. Tap, tap. Your bat lifts. His right arm goes behind his shoulder. The slingshot, the one that reminds some of Waqar and some of Jeff Thomson, is ready. So are you. Back and across. It's full. You get your left leg out of the way. Bring your bat down.

Too late.

You don't want to look behind you; it's too much carnage to bear. You don't want to look up either; it's too much joy to bear. You keep your head down and slink off. Make yourself feel better. You remind yourself: I'm not the first, and I damn sure won't be the last. As the incoming batsman walks by, you want to warm him about what's coming but don't want to discourage him. You search for the correct advice to give. All you find yourself saying is: Keep the backlift low. Don't get stuck on the crease. Leave on length, not line.

Over the last decade, Shoaib Akhtar has provided more exhilarating moments on the field than any other cricketer. It's not even close. Since I started watching the sport around the 1992, no one, I mean no one, has possessed the capabilitity of sheer destruction that he has. Quicker than Ambrose, more bounce than Waqar, more accurate than Lee, and more menacing than Donald. Whenever I break away into fantasy-land and imagine I'm an international cricketer, I always snap back to reality with the following thought: "Yeah, but guys like Shoaib would fuck me up." Can you think of a more intimidating force with the ball in hand than Shoaib Akhtar? Don't shake your head, it was a rhetorical question. No one with even a cursory interest in the game will ever forget his spell against Australia at Colombo when he got Ponting, both Waughs, Gilchrist and Warne in fifteen balls (all bowled or LBW), or the Dravid-Tendulkar double at Calcutta, or the Fleming or Giles yorkers, or the bouncer that hit Lara, or the multiple decimations against New Zealand.

Shoaib's immense talents are exactly why it hurts me to say that he is bad for Pakistan cricket, and that he should no longer have a future in the international game. I say this because the endless drama of whether or not he will play series X against team Y, and the endless questioning of his attitude and commitment to the team, have a seriously deleterious effect on our team, and the benefits of having him around no longer outweigh the costs.

Before I go on, I should say I don't hope to convince anyone to change their position on Shoaib. Actually, let me rephrase that. I don't anticipate that I will convince anyone to change their position on Shoaib. He elicits such passions, and is such a divisive character, that neither people who love him and think he's Pakistan's greatest asset after the Indus River, nor people who think he's a cancer and should not just be thrown out of the team, but also of the country, will ever be persuaded they're wrong. Stopping your love affair with Shoaib is like quitting smoking: no one can do it for you, the feeling has to come from within. I can speak to the matter because I've done both.

First, let's deal with his injuries. When you google "shoaib akhtar injured" you get more results than you do if you google "kargil bad idea," "wasim akram great," "islamabad uk student visa," and "nusrat fateh ali khan fat". I would venture to suggest Shoaib could have made more money being a consultant to/walking advertisement for sports medicine than he has playing cricket. According to this timeline, Shoaib suffered a rib injury, as well as a side strain, as well as shoulder, knee and ankle injuries in 2000. That's five serious injuries in one calendar year. The next year, he played one ODI against New Zealand and broke down with a hamstring injury nine balls into the next one. He missed most of the England tour that summer because of what the story calls "injury and poor health". In 2002, he had a knee injury just before the test series against South Africa, a few weeks before the World Cup. In the winter of 2003-04, he missed the first test against New Zealand because of calf and groin injuries. At the beginning of 2004, he injured his back against India. At the end of 2004, he injured his shoulder against Australia. A few weeks later, at the beginning of the 2005 ODI triangular series in Australia, he pulled up lame because of a hamstring problem. He missed most of Pakistan's cricket that year, including tours to India and the West Indies, until he returned against England, a seris during which he injured his ankle which was aggravated in the 2006 series against India.

I think it's safe to say Shoaib gets injured a lot. What's almost as damaging as the frequency of his injuries is the severity of them. You never hear of Shoaib missing two weeks because of a broken pinkie or something. With him, it's always a three-, four- or sometimes nine-month break from the game. With such long hiatuses, it becomes difficult for him to keep himself in tip-top condition, which adversely affects his chances of staying fit when he finally does recover from the injury, and the cycle repeats itself. Though I could have done the following calculation for all the years Shoaib has been an international cricketer, I did so only for 2006 because of a lack of time. What I did was relatively simple. I counted the number of days Pakistan played an international game, including tests, ODIs and 20-20 games. If a test ended in four days, I counted it as just four days, not the whole five. I then found the number of days Shoaib was present on the field. What did I find? In 2006, Pakistan played cricket on 79 days. Shoaib played 23. For those who don't have a calculator handy, that works out to a smooth 29%. Twenty nine percent! If cricket was school, and Shoaib was a student, he would have been expelled for attendance by now.

What about his attitude/commitment? I'm afraid to say this might be an even more inexorable problem than his fitness, or lack thereof. At least with his injuries, you can argue (though you'd have to be one of stupid or blind to) that if he just gets himself fit, works out, takes care of himself, eats right, watches his body, and listens to doctors and nutrionists, that he can turn the corner. But personalities are more etched in stone that physical condition. Simply put, if Shoaib hasn't changed by now, he isn't about to any time soon. Or ever.

One of the things that really riles me up is when Shoaib's defenders straw-man the argument that Shoaib lacks commitment. "It's none of your business what he does in his private time," they say indignantly. "If he wants to party and sleep with every woman he can get his hands on, he should be allowed to." To that I say: no shit. No one, least of all me, is concerned with what this man does off the field. He can try to work himself in the playboy hall of fame for all I care. (One quick aside: someone who I know very, very, very well once saw him at a New Year's party in Karachi about five years ago. Wasim was also in attendance, though they didn't necessarily hang around. My informant told me that while Wasim had a constant stream of people walking up, both men and women, to talk to him, Shoaib was by and large by himself the whole night sipping his scotch. Some playboy, eh?)

No, what really bothers me is not that Shoaib likes drinking and fucking, but that Shoaib is not a team-man (except for an ever so brief period between October 2005 and March 2006). His problems with Inzi and Woolmer are well-documented. Of all the incidents that took place in that relationship, the one that bothered me most was when Shoaib came out right before the World Cup saying he's going to pull out because Woolmer and Inzi offended his honour, that they've ruined his career, blah blah blah. This was after he had shoved Woolmer in South Africa; the arrow of disrespect actually pointed the other way. Furthermore, he never felt any compunction at throwing in the towel in lost causes (remember our last Australia tour?). He questioned the talent of others in the team when he felt like he was fighting a lone battle, something bowlers with twice his talent and similarly abject backups (Murali, for one) never did. He lied about injuries. And the list goes on and on.

I remember the exact moment when my distaste for Shoaib crystallized. The moment best exemplified the two concerns outlined above - his lack of fitness and his lack of commitment. It was some time in December, a few weeks after he'd been cleared of the nandrolone charge. I went to the National Stadium to watch a 20-20 game to see Shoaib live. I was sitting about as far as you possibly could from the action, and even from that distance I could tell the following two things. One, Shoaib was huffing and puffing, and was having trouble finishing his quota in a friggin' 20-20 game. Two, Shoaib was fat. Not oh-he's-put-on-a-few-pounds or hmm-he-looks-different. No, he looked fat. F-A-T. I remember asking myself: even if he was banned, why didn't he try to keep himself fit? As a professional athelete, shouldn't you be in the gym five days a week regardless of circumstances? And then I remember admonishing myself, for being so stupid as to think Shoaib was committed to keeping himself fit. For him, it was all about the glitz and the glamour, the 35 yard run-up, the headlines, the women, the middle stump knocked 25 feet behind the crease. It was never about the nut and bolts of being a fast bowler, of working hard in the off-season, of being an athelete the way Imran was, of constantly looking to improve. He compared himself to a Ferrari and a 747 jet without realizing how much work went into creating and maintaining those machines.

Throughout Shoaib's career, Pakistan has not been able to rely on him, for whatever reason. No one can ever be sure that he will play in any given game. If he does play in a game, no can ever be sure that he'll make it through. I've lost count of the number of times Shoaib has pulled up in the middle of a game. The last time pretty much summed up his career: taking four cheap wickets in the first innings, he helped skittle out South Africa for a low total. He, of course, got injured half way through, and forced Pakistan to go the rest of the way with three bowlers. Pakistan's two most prized assets - Asif and Dani - the guys who should be wrapped in cotton wool, bowled ninety overs between them in the second innings. Ninety! The point is, this was a situation that was (a) all too reminiscent and (b) all too preditable. Shoaib, once again, had proved himself unreliable.

It is because of this unreliability that we need to cut the cord. We cannot be held hostage by this endless drama of whether or not he'll be fit, whether or not he's carrying an injury and lying about it, whether or not he's 100% behind the captain and coach, and whether or not he woke up on the right side of bed any particular morning. Don't forget all the shit we have to put with because of his problems with drugs, ball-tampering and chucking (anybody who watched the South Africa series and did not conclude he's chucking is blind). All this is simply not worth it, not for someone who plays 29% of our cricket. We should thank him for his services, wish him the best and give him the nickname of Godot.

One last point: in the hysteria over our World Cup exit and the tough loss in South Africa, people are forgetting we have in our ranks, in my opinion, the best quick bowler in the world (Asif), another who's among the world's six or seven best (Gul) and a quality leg-spinner. Our bowling lineup, in other words, is fine. We should preferably find a young quick bowler from our domestic scene to be the third seamer. Failing that, we should stick with the Rana-Shahid Nazir-Najaf-Rao gang in the hopes that one of them puts their hand up in the next six months and really cements a spot. But make no mistake: Shoaib is not irreplaceable. Hell, we play more than two-thirds of our cricket without him anyway, so how much will we really miss him? I submit: not much. Now is a good time too, what with a new captain, a new coach and, I presume, a new slate.

Come on, Pakistan, throw away those Bensons. It's time to move on.


Anonymous said...

gosh, how do you have so much time to write this shit? I'm impressed, jealous but also slightly grateful.

Ahsan said...

it's funny how time opens up when you choose not to read an assigned 450 page book on revolutions in eastern europe.

billu said...

Well done. Of course, I couldn't not respond...


omar said...

bloody hell Ahsan. This was long....

Good one though. I'll comment in a bit!

f.z. said...

I came here from the DAWN Blog article you just wrote, and I have to say, both (the DB one and this) are really really good! Lots of laughs!

I agree with you in general, but my take isn't worth much since I've stopped following cricket... until the team mans up and learns to fight (not necessarily win) will I now come back. A damn T20 WC win means nothing.

Anonymous said...

You are very talented. You know what? All you write is what I, and almost every one, think and talk about but you write it and present it brilliantly.
Keep it up mate!