Cricket World Cup: Shoaib's showbiz delights his fans

The Rawalpindi Express is running at full steam
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The Independent Online
THIS TIME, with no subcontinental neighbours to compete for their space, the lime greens had the place to themselves, a riot of crescent- moon flags waving to a cacophony of klaxons and whistles from the moment Wasim Akram led his Pakistan players on to the field.

By late afternoon, even with victory still some distance away, the firecrackers began and excitement turned to unbridled frenzy. So overwhelmed were their supporters at the prospect of reaching the final that, close to the end, play had to be suspended for 10 minutes to clear the field and allow the last six runs to be scored. Old Trafford belonged to Pakistan.

The atmosphere was not for the faint-hearted; but it was one in which strong men thrived and showmen could strut their stuff. There is no doubt in which category Shoaib Akhtar sits. "He was so excited," his captain, Wasim Akram, revealed later, "he did not sleep last night." This was his audience and how he was going to milk them.

Back home, Shoaib's following is huge. Young men aspire to be like him, young women simply adore him. Giggling schoolgirls rush towards him when he fields near the boundary, clamouring for his autograph. He rewards them with playful pats on the head. He likes to be showbizzy off the field, too, according to his reputation, flamboyantly addressing friends and colleagues as "darling".

He was Old Trafford's darling yesterday, all right. He needed only to have the ball in his hand for the volume to pump up. Then he would swagger to his mark, turn and thunder down his tracks: the Rawalpindi Express in full flight. They wanted him on centre stage and he did not let them down, extravagant reaction greeting every move.

Sometimes it would be to tear at his hair in frustration as a ball flew high but harmlessly off an edge or took a batsman's feet from under him but somehow missed the target. Or else to howl in anguish and throw arms towards the heavens when his control let him down or, more likely, a team- mate cost him runs through bad fielding: the poor, lumbering Inzamam-ul- Haq copped for some of that. Then a hand would push the flopping black mane back from his forehead and the routine would start again, with a prayer, perhaps, that next time he would be favoured.

When he was, the jumps and punches knew no bounds as Kiwi stumps flew. His figures show that success did not come cheap but each spell brought a breakthrough, none more significant than the second, when an inswinging yorker came at Stephen Fleming like a slingshot, uprooting the New Zealand captain's leg stump and ending the partnership with Roger Twose that had threatened to set Pakistan's batsmen a real challenge. Shoaib, following through, leapt into the air and just carried on running, almost knocking over the wicketkeeper Moin Khan, eyes wild, fists clenched, roaring out his triumph.

Wasim, the captain who has backed his "boys" - Shoaib was 24 only last weekend - through their formative cricketing years, had felt it necessary to assail the young buck with the sharp side of his tongue after he had bowled wastefully against South Africa at the start of the Super Six. For a while, it is said, there was a rift between the two. It has healed now and no one dares suggest to Wasim that it was not a deliberate ploy. Yesterday, there was only credit for the man of the match. "He bowled his heart out," Wasim said. "This is all a learning process for him. He is ready for the final now."

He could scarcely call them boys yesterday as they dominated their opponents in a way no one had envisaged, even in acknowledging New Zealand as true underdogs. After Shoaib came Wajahutallah Wasti, only seven months older and playing only his seventh one-day international. He supported Saeed Anwar brilliantly, deserving of a hundred himself for his part in their record-breaking stand. Yesterday he and Shoaib had a right to be called men.

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