October 27, 2005

Shoaib Akhtar – a talented hero who loves playing the villain

By H Natarajan

Andy Roberts was a quiet performer on the field; no theatrics, no petulance, no tantrums. The latent fire reflected in his bowling and not in his conduct. Roberts’s persona was the antithesis of a fast bowler. There were other high quality fast bowlers like Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Courtney Walsh, who all went about their business in a manner that was not in sync with the stereotype image of a fast bowler.

The likes of Fred Trueman, Roy Gilchrist, John Snow, Dennis Lillee, Sarfraz Nawaz, Glenn McGrath and Allan Donald represent polar opposites of the rare breed mentioned above. Trueman was temperamental and proved difficult for opponents and team-mates alike; Gilchrist was a hyper-aggressive 24 year old when his career ended dramatically after the team management sent him home midway through West Indies’s tour of India in 1959; Snow was unapologetic being a rebel and titled his autobiography Cricket Rebel; Lillee was confrontationist beyond compare and held centre stage in some of the biggest cricketing controversies; McGrath is an orator at sledging and Donald’s mental, physical and verbal make-up is unalloyed hostility.

If research scientists were to study the subject of flawed personalities among fast bowlers, there is no better test case in modern cricket than the enigmatic Shoaib Akhtar. The Pakistani arrived on the scene as one of the most exciting talent but has since been more of an exiting talent. He has missed 35 of the 71 Tests Pakistan has played since his debut in 1997 because of fitness issues and clashes with authority.

Inzamam-ul-Haq has had his share of problems dealing with Shoaib. But then he is not the first captain to be frustrated by the non-conformist fast bowler. The Pakistan team management wanted to get a grip on the slow over rate that was putting the captain’s career in jeopardy. Coach Bob Woolmer advised the paceman to prune his 40-yard run-up to expedite the team’s over-rate and help the bowler conserve his energy for longer spells. But Shoaib rubbished the suggestion saying "a jet cannot get full flight if its runway is cut short."

Shoaib obsession for pace have not always proved productive. "He has only an accelerator in his head; no gears and no brake," a Pakistani team-mate reportedly said of Shoaib.

Clearly he is not the most popular of players among his team-mates. A newspaper in Pakistan reported that Inzamam, Yousuf Youhana, Abdul Razzaq, Shahid Afridi, Younis Khan, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Salman Butt did not want the paceman in the Pakistan squad for India and were said to have contemplated boycotting the tour if Shoaib was picked. Eventually, Shoaib missed the tour due to injury, but he did not find a place on the team to tour the West Indies that followed - ostensibly for fitness reasons.

Shoaib’s maverick ways have led to an uneasy relationship between him and the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB). “The Board should be honest about me. By making one-sided statements they are harming my reputation, and that is not good for me. I have numerous commercial endorsements and contracts. I am due to play for Worcestershire. Naturally, talk about me being unfit and indiscipline is not good for me,” he said.

Shoaib needs to look inwards rather than look hurt and wonder why the whole world is colluding against him. His stint at Worcester was no different. He was fined for late nights out – a recurrent complaint against him. It forced the county’s chairman to say in public that the fast bowler was a difficult person to handle and who caused “mayhem” to the spirit of the dressing room. In other words, it meant not he was not a team man or being a law unto himself. Certainly no team would like to have such a maverick, however good he is, because it can have a viral effect on the rest of the team.

Shaharyar Khan, chairman of the PCB, had said something similar to the Worcester county chairman about Shoaib after India’s tour of Pakistan last year: "The manager, the coach and the captain of the Pakistan team were annoyed with the attitude of Shoaib during the recent series and he caused a decline in the morale of the whole team."

No team would like to miss out on a bowler with the pace and strike ability of Shoaib. No team would like to miss a charismatic personality and a crowd puller. But no team would like to have a player who assumes a prima donna status and flagrantly violate all norms.

The PCB must take blame for the way it has handled this flawed genius. Lt Gen Tauqir Zia, when he was at the helm of PCB, had warned Shoaib: "Let me make this clear. If Shoaib does not improve his behaviour and general discipline, he has no place in the team. His cricket is finished."

That was in April 2003. But it the warnings made no difference to the compulsive rebel. Six months later he abused Paul Adams and was banned by match referee Clive Lloyd for one Test and two ODIs. It was a second breach within 12 months and in line with the provisions of the ICC Code the imposed penalty was escalated. Subsequently, he was pulled up by two more ICC match refs. Last year, Rajan Madugalle fined 40% of his match fees for exhibiting rude gesture towards a dismissed batsman and Chris Broad fined 25% of his match fee for excessive appealing.

Shoaib is a very complex character whose penchant for courting trouble is legendary. When people are swooning at your sight, when you enjoy rock star-like status, when your cricketing talents fetch movie offers, when you have the megabucks to lead megastar lifestyle, when the coveted things in life that remain a dream for most comes to you effortlessly, it’s not easy for your head to remain normal, especially if your are coming from a modest, conservative background. Not everybody is equipped to handle such surrealism. Not everybody can handle such dramatic transformation in life. It can lead to personality disorders and narcissism. Questioning such an ego leads to conflict.