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Shoaib Akhtar - Charisma and belligerence
by Suresh Menon
Dec 18, 2007
Sport is so unfair. A sportsman is expected to show flair, demonstrate the killer instinct, be aggressive, intimidate and threaten on the field of play; yet the moment he does any of these things, he is branded a liability, a difficult person to handle. Fans (and officials) fail to understand that the elements that go into the making of an aggressive fast bowler, for example, cannot always be switched on and off. Aggression’s springs are the same.

Watching Shoaib Akhtar bowl in India recently - he claimed six wickets in the first Test and then just three in the remaining two - it was difficult not to ask sport’s eternal question: What if?

What if he had been at peak fitness? What if he had been able to bowl long spells? Would the series have gone the other way? True, as Shoaib himself said reacting to criticism at the end of the tour, he lacked support at the other end and one man alone cannot be expected to take all the wickets. But fast bowlers are special. They not only dismiss batsmen themselves, they cause batsmen to give wickets to other bowlers too.

Shoaib is 32, and it is difficult to see him fulfill his ambition of claiming 300 Test wickets. In the decade since he played his first Test, Pakistan have played 94; he has played 46 of them, for 178 wickets. Lack of discipline, physical and mental has seen him miss more Tests than he has played, yet he is one of the great sights of contemporary cricket, a fast bowler who knows no other language. He has finished on the winning side 20 times, and has claimed 104 wickets in the victory Tests. This is a significant statistic, it places the bowler in context.

Such a performer should be given what George Orwell called in another context the benefit of clergy. He should be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility - rather like a pregnant woman is, I suppose.

He was pilloried for playing the recent Kolkata Test when he ran up to his bowling mark virtually from the sick bed. Yet it was a gamble worth taking for a depleted side. Likewise in Bangalore when his long absence from the field during India’s first innings meant that he could not bowl while Sourav Ganguly helped himself to a double hundred and placed the game beyond Pakistan’s reach.

Throughout his career, Shoaib has been a fascinating combination of charisma and belligerence. Almost every India-Pakistan encounter began with Shoaib telling the world what he would do to Tendulkar. And yet, when that batsman was walking off the field after hitting the winning square cut in the Delhi Test, it was Shoaib who went up to him and gave him a hug - it was one professional paying tribute to another.

Shoaib thrills as a player, charms as a person, and attracts focus whatever he is doing. Like a great performer, he has the gift of riveting everybody’s attention onto himself. And like a mischievous schoolboy, he knows everyone is watching him, and he puts on a show. It could be the arms-outstretched airplane-imitating celebration on taking a wicket. Or the soft toy pinching routine near the boundary in the recent series.

Time is running out for Shoaib. Sport is a harsh taskmaster. The line between the good and the very good is easily crossed; you need to be merely talented. But from the very good to the great it needs both outrageous talent and discipline. Perhaps that is what Shoaib was acknowledging when he gave Tendulkar a hug.

 
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