End of the line as 'Rawalpindi Express' is hit by five-year ban
The paceman Shoaib Akhtar broke the 100mph barrier but also the patience of Pakistan, writes Stephen Brenkley
Wednesday 02 April 2008
The image of Shoaib Akhtar that should have endured was fashioned on a warm Manchester afternoon in 1999. He strode back to his mark, swept back his mane of dark hair and roared in, arms flailing, back arched. The ball was released at 92mph, swung late, pitched later and uprooted Stephen Fleming's off stump. Pakistan were on their way to the World Cup final, propelled there by the new 23-year-old fast bowler, hailed already as the Rawalpindi Express.
Shoaib had the world at his feet then, a raw natural talent with movie star looks, the vivid demeanour to go with them and thus the capacity to thrill audiences anywhere. What a spine-tingling sight he was. And that lethal ball to Fleming embodied it all. In the years that followed sadly, the image was tarnished.
It became grubby and was replaced, or at least accompanied, by something altogether less alluring. Wherever Shoaib went, whatever he did, trouble was nearby. He was forgiven much, indeed almost everything for what he could bring on to a cricket field. Nothing in the game – not a Brian Lara batting or a Shane Warne bowling – can quite match watching a genuine speed merchant in full flow and Shoaib's flow was fuller and faster than anybody's – a raging torrent.
But yesterday, finally, inevitably, his international career reached a sad, seemingly inevitable conclusion when Shoaib was banned for five years by the Pakistan Cricket Board. Pending an appeal – and, given the previous appeals he has been involved in, success in that area should not be discounted – that would seem to be that for him as an international.
If the appeal were to fail then he would be 37 by the time he was able to resume his career with Pakistan, not an age notable for the pomp of fast bowlers. The PCB seem at last to have had enough. "The board has lost confidence in Shoaib Akhtar and therefore felt that his presence in the field was damaging to the Pakistan team, for Pakistan players and for the image of Pakistan cricket," said the PCB chairman, Nasim Ashraf in announcing the suspension. "The committee has recommended a five-year ban. He will be ineligible to play in Pakistan or for Pakistan anywhere in the world. It is a sad day for me and for Shoaib Akhtar. He is such a talented player."
A talented player with a mercurial personality – which may be demonstrated later this month. The punishment does not extend to Shoaib playing for other teams outside Pakistan and he has been signed for $425,000 (£214,000) to represent Kolkata in the Indian Premier League. It would be typical of him to run amok. The charge sheet is long, though what finally brought him down was a relatively trifling misdemeanour. Shoaib berated the PCB in print for offering him a retainer instead of a central contract and was charged with publicly criticising them.
Consider that in the past nine years, in no particular order, he has been accused (and later cleared) of throwing, convicted of taking a performance enhancing drug and hitting fellow fast bowler Mohammad Asif with a cricket bat, banned for ball tampering, and using obscene and offensive language. And he also had a logo on his bat that was adjudged too large.
The chucking charge was thrown out when his arm was found to be hyperextended, and though to the naked eye at his furious, frenetic, glorious best it still looked decidedly impure you were always caught up in the majesty of the moment.
For the drugs offence he was sent home from the 2006 Champions Trophy but the subsequent ban was later risibly lifted. For striking Asif he was dismissed from the inaugural World Twenty20 last year and later fined 3.4 million rupees (£25,000) and banned for 13 matches. He was on a kind of cricketing parole when he opened his mouth again last month. At various times in between, he has been lacklustre and at odds with captains and coaches. All could see his worth which Shoaib himself also recognised fully. But he sent them into despair. When Bob Woolmer was coach of Pakistan he always reckoned he could deal with Shoaib but the undesirable hangers-on – "gangsters" Woolmer called them – proved too much.
He spent an inordinate time trying to become the first fast bowler to reach 100mph, which he achieved at Cape Town in the 2003 World Cup. But did it really matter? There should and could have been considerably more than 46 Test matches and 138 one-day internationals. A record of 178 wickets at 25.70 in the former and 219 at 23.20 with a strike rate under 30 in the latter hardly constitute either failure or unfulfilment. And yet...
Perhaps his finest series was against England in late 2005. He took 17 wickets in three matches, including five in the last innings of the rubber, and was utterly compelling and incisive throughout.
It was characteristic of Shoaib that yesterday he could see no wrong in anything he had done. Disappointed by the sentence he said he would go to court to appeal. But it was the little boy lost, butter would not melt in his mouth impression that as usual caught the eye, if it did not this time melt the heart.
"Ask the captain, ask coach Geoff Lawson and they would vouch for me. I had played with high fever on the India tour last year which proved my commitment," he said. "I bowl fast so am prone to injuries but I have given my heart, body and soul to this team. I know some vested interest did not want me to be part of the team but I will be back."
He had hoped that an apology for his latest outburst against the board would suffice. But he was wrong. Lawson may want him back in the side. There was plenty of evidence last year that he still had it when he was constantly dismissing top order batsmen with the new ball.
But if he was not a divisive influence around the team he was never a unifying one either. Teams can put up with a great deal from the man who is going to take five wickets and put the fear of Allah into the opposing team but Shoaib seemed never to get it. He appeared to assume that one more excess could merely be followed by one more apology and then the show could go on. Yesterday the show might have stopped for good.
Akhtar antics: The turbulent times of Pakistan's premier paceman
1997 Aged 21, tours England with Pakistan 'A' and is cited for indiscipline.
1998 Takes 5-43 in Pakistan's first Test win in South Africa.
1999 Enjoys wonderful World Cup, especially in semi-final win over New Zealand. Called for throwing.
2002 Bowls first 100mph delivery. Banned for an ODI after throwing a bottle into the crowds in Zimbabwe. Takes 5-25 in one-dayer in Brisbane and 5-21 in Colombo Test.
2003 Banned for ball tampering. Banned for a Test and two ODIs for abusing South Africa's Paul Adams. Misses Test in New Zealand with calf and groin injuries but is pictured day before enjoying a jet-ski ride.
2005 Labelled a disruptive influence by Worcestershire chairman John Elliott. Takes 17 wickets in Test series win v England.
2006 Two-year ban for positive nandrolone test. The verdict was overturned a month later.
2007 Hits team-mate Mohammad Asif with a bat. Handed a 13-match ban and a fine of $57,000 (£28,000) and placed on a two-year probation.
2008 The board's announcement of new central contracts in January sees Shoaib demoted from the top category to a retainership. He is given a five-year ban, preventing him from playing for and in Pakistan, after accusing the board of double standards over awarding of the contracts.
Stats: Tests 46 Wickets 178 BBI 6-11 Ave 25.69.
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