September 13, 2007

Raising the bat…for the wrong reasons

By H Natarajan

The cricket bat is meant to strike. To be unambiguous, the purpose of a bat is to strike the cricket ball. The use of bat as a legalized weapon is restricted to just hitting the ball. The game, however, have had its share of enfant terribles who have used, or attempted to use, the bat as an instrument to cause physical harm.

The latest to join the Hall of Infame is Shoaib Akhtar who clubbed Mohammad Asif, his fellow new-ball partner, with the bat. It left Asif with a bruised thigh, the Pakistan Cricket Board with sense of outrage and the accused a quick ticket back home to regret in isolation. The shocking incident has seen right-minded people around the world unite in seeking exemplary punishment for the rebellious fast bowler whose career has a litany of run-ins with authorities.

In many ways, Shoaib Akhtar is the Mike Tyson of cricket – a flawed sporting genius. Both men have repeatedly fell foul of the law and have simply refused to reform their wayward – and that’s a mild word, really – ways. Tyson, of course, is in a different league when it comes to illegal violence – be it biting the ear of his opponent in the ring or showing his muscular wrath on his wife. His deranged behavior has left him with correctional terms in jail and rehab centers. Shoaib is not in the Tyson category in that sense, but at least one former Pakistani believes he is not far behind.

Asif Iqbal, former Pakistan captain, was emphatic in his opinion when he said: “The line has to be drawn somewhere and if it is not drawn here, the question has to be asked: Are we waiting till he commits mass murder?”

What Asif Iqbal and many more around the world are clamoring for is a permanent cricketing ostracization – an end to the maverick’s career. And they are not wrong. Shoaib’s acts have not only hurt – in more ways than one – the cricketing world but also sent out wrong messages to the society. As one of the premier fast bowlers in the world, he draws great attention, but acts like the one he committed against a team member sends out powerful and destructive social messages to young and impressionable minds.

Shoaib is not the first Pakistani to find himself in such disgrace - though he is the first to target a team mate! In the 1981-82 Test series against Australia, Javed Miandad menacingly lifted his bat to strike bowler Dennis Lillee. From all accounts, it was “Dennis the Menace” who had provoked Miandad by coming in his way – literally and figuratively. If not for umpire Tony Crafer’s timely and brave interception, Lillee and Miandad - two of the biggest Bad Boys of the Game – could shamed cricket in a manner that would have been far more disastrous than it eventually was. Lillee escaped with a fine and two-match ban.

Then it was the turn of Inzamam-ul-Haq. Fair to say, it was most surprising to find one of the quietest of men getting embroiled in a controversy of such nature. The incident happened in an ODI match against India at Toronto in 1997-98. Inzi’s enormous girth, which has always invited much ridicule, was taken to a different level by a megaphone-wielding Canadian-Indian on the ground. Inzy waded into the direction of the offending spectator with a bat handed over to him by a team mate. But for the intervention of the ground security, the situation would have been much nastier than it was. Canadian police arrested Inzamam and charged him with two counts of assault and one of assault with a deadly weapon. Inzi was later released on bail of $3,000. Match referee Jackie Hendriks banned Inzamam for two ODIs.

There was yet another instance of a player using the bat to smack the human anatomy – this incident remembered more for the laughs it generated than the anger. The aggressor in this case was Greg Chappell and the person attacked was a spectator – not the normal spectator, but a streaker! The incident happened in the Australia-New Zealand Test at Auckland in 1976-77 when Chappell smacked the bare butt of the “Intrusive Adam’ to teach him a lesson.

The Pakistan Cricket Board has shown a very high and unwarranted tolerance level towards Shoaib in the past. But this time Shoaib has crossed unprecedented limits, something the board would find it difficult to pardon if it has to be seen as a body that works within the framework of what society considers acceptable.

Shoaib may well have pressed the self-destruct button.

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