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By Partab Ramchand
Two leading fast bowlers are making headlines - one for making a return to the international game when it was felt that his career was over and the other for being the fourth fastest to cross the 200-wicket barrier in Tests.
There cannot be a better sight in cricket than a top class fast bowler in action sending stumps flying, hurling down searing yorkers or making the batsman duck under a fearful bouncer. And in the contemporary game they don’t come any better than Dale Steyn and Shoaib Akhtar now that Shane Bond has retired.
Akhtar’s return to the Pakistan team for the Asia Cup has attracted considerable attention and why not? He remains one of the leading personalities in the game warts and all. He has faced allegations of indiscipline and being a disruptive influence on the team and that is why his appearances have been restricted to 46 Tests and 145 ODIs when under normal circumstances he could have played almost double that number considering the fact that his career started way back in 1997. But with the ball in his hand Akhtar becomes a cricketer who commands attention simply because he has it in him to produce the one really spectacular moment of the match. Even though eleven years have passed can anyone forget his memorable double strike against India at Kolkata during the Asian Test Championship match? With successive unplayable deliveries he bowled Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar and from then on India were up against the wall. Akhtar finished with a match haul of eight wickets as Pakistan won by 46 runs.
A few months later Akhtar inspired Pakistan to a comfortable nine-wicket victory over New Zealand in the World Cup in England. His figures of three for 55 weren't that spectacular, but the manner of his three wickets certainly was. They all came from non- negotiable yorkers that bowled Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming and Chris Harris. Wisden Cricket Monthly said that Akhtar was the ``tournament's pin-up: exciting, effective, expensive, exhilarating."
Through the first decade of the new millennium Akhtar was all that but he could also be mystifying for the cricket loving public and a bundle of frustration for his captain, teammates and the Pakistan Cricket Board who had their hands full imposing penalties on him for various acts of omission and commission. He also had more than his share of injuries but was always making a comeback. The latest however was thought to be beyond him since he is just a couple of months short of his 35th birthday. Watching him perform at the Asia Cup it is obvious that he has lost the pace that made him the world’s fastest bowler. Touching the 160 kmph (100 mph) barrier was always a passion for him and he accomplished that during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. At Dambulla he had come down to around 145 kmph which is not surprising. All the same it is great to have him back perhaps for one final flourish.
Steyn on the other hand has emerged as the leading fast bowler in the game today and if anyone still doubts that one has only to look at his latest achievement. In the first Test against West Indies at Port of Spain he crossed the 200-wicket barrier in his 39th Test – only Clarrie Grimmett (36), Dennis Lillee (38) and Waqar Younis (38) have reached the mark in fewer Tests and as can be seen only just. To me this is hardly a surprise for along with Bond Steyn has defined the art and skill of fast bowling in the first decade of the new millennium. But whereas Bond was plagued by injuries Steyn has been remarkably free from such problems.
Steyn has all the qualities of a world class fast bowler. More than any other pace bowler he is capable of sending down the unplayable deliveries in the midst of a devastating spell. His eight-wicket haul against the West Indies on an unhelpful pitch at Port of Spain brought back memories of a similar feat against the same opponents at Durban early in 2008 when on a flat and true surface, his searing pace made all the difference as he polished off the visitors’ innings with a spell of four for zero off 15 deliveries with the second new ball.
Indian pitches have a notorious reputation for being a graveyard for fast bowlers but Steyn has proved that skilful pacemen can succeed even in unfriendly conditions. Two years ago he took 15 wickets in three Tests and earlier this year he notched up a match winning haul of ten wickets at Nagpur. The manner in which he scythed through the Indian batting in the post-tea session on the third day with a spell of five wickets for three runs even as he had removed Murali Vijay and Sachin Tendulkar with dream deliveries prior to this brought out the true qualities of the complete fast bowler that Steyn undoubtedly is.
It is not just the speed at which he hurtles down the ball that took one’s breath away. Steyn is a paceman with a surgeon’s touch who bowls with clinical precision and has the unadulterated skills of a great fast bowler. The control over line and length, the manner in which he bowls in the corridor of uncertainty and the judicious use of the bouncer and the yorker have made him a feared opponent. Moreover in the manner of the greatest fast bowlers he can provide the initial breakthrough time and again and polish off the tail in next to no time. It is a tribute to Steyn that despite the presence of Shaun Pollock, Andre Nel, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel he is firmly established as the pace spearhead.