Not bowled over

Lead review

Not bowled over

Of all the cricketers who have paraded their wares on the global stage, few have been in the limelight more for their off-field shenanigans than their on-field exploits. At his meanest, Shoaib Akthar, the Rawalpindi Express was more than a handful, fast and furious, with a wicked streak about him. He could hurl the cherry as quick as anyone in the business, and still holds the official record for the fastest delivery in international cricket. His skill made for compelling viewing, but it’s a reflection of a talent gone awry that Akhtar is remembered less for cricket and more for controversy.

A clever marketing team has appropriately named his autobiography,, co-authored by Anshu Doga, Controversially Yours. Through the book, Akhtar tries to come out smelling of roses, but the fact that he okayed the title merely indicates that he was more than comfortable — and perhaps even mildly responsible for — answering to the tag ‘controversial.’

The one thing that stands out is the persecution complex Akhtar carried throughout his career. The fifth-born to a modest but loving family in dusty Morgah in Pindi, the book provides a fascinating insight into Akhtar’s early days, the struggle for survival, his repeated trysts with ill health (asthma was a constant companion), and how he went on to become one of the fastest, if not the best, bowlers in the world.

His early travails steeled him for what he calls the big bad world of Pakistan cricket, with its constant internecine political games that have often left talent a casualty. It’s clear that right from the beginning, Akhtar had a rebellious streak in him; it’s as if he had a problem with authority, and that he was ready to perceive a slight, even if one wasn’t intended.

Having outlined his numerous brushes with officialdom, Akhtar is convinced in his belief that more often than not, he was in the right and the world was ranged against him. He glosses over his own misdemeanours, especially when it comes to fitness issues, but is quick to point fingers at almost everyone else, including outrageously hinting that the great Wasim Akram was jealous of himself. This, when Akhtar was yet to make his international debut and Akram had already wowed the world for more than a decade and a half!

It’s worth remembering that even before the book hit the stands, it triggered a furore in India with excerpts revealing that Akhtar had questioned Sachin Tendulkar’s courage whilst facing him. So much heat did those comments generate that launch functions in Mumbai and Bangalore had to be cancelled at the last minute. At that time, Akhtar had insisted that those
remarks had been taken out of context. One read of the book is enough to convince the reader that Akhtar means no disrespect to the Indian champion, and that his observation — which is no more than his due — pertained to a specific incident during the Faisalabad Test in early 2006, not long after Tendulkar returned to international cricket after treatment to a painful tennis elbow.

Akhtar could so easily have used this platform to dissect not just success but also failure. Instead, he has missed a glorious opportunity to throw light on several issues by merely harping on moments of personal delight while sweeping aside team and individual failures.

Pakistan’s campaign in the 2003 World Cup was disastrous, to say the least. There’s hardly a word about the Centurion showdown when Tendulkar and Sehwag pulverised the opposition, but Akhtar has devoted plenty of space to the fastest recorded legal delivery to date.

Akhtar touched 161.3 kmph — surging past the magical 100 mph barrier — against England in that World Cup, and while that was no more than a personal milestone because that delivery didn’t even fetch him a wicket, he eulogises that feat and bemoans the fact that he didn’t get the recognition his ‘accomplishment’ deserved.

That’s, of course, only part of the Akhtar saga. Narrations also reveal a heart of gold, of childhood relationships extending well into his adult life, of his love and respect for his parents, and of his gratitude to little-known, commonplace people who helped him in times of adversity and whom he remembers even today with great fondness. Clearly, Akhtar is a man of many parts — petulant and arrogant when not in the mood, charming and grateful when he casts aside the trappings of a superstar that he so obviously was.

The ‘bad boy’ of Pakistan cricket signs off with a lengthy discourse on the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) non-existent man-management skills. Even accounting for a degree of exaggeration, even if half the things Akhtar has outlined are true, then it’s a miracle that Pakistan continue to do as well as they have on the cricket field.

Political interference in PCB matters, and the utter lack of respect towards players, are obviously grouses Akhtar nurses with no little feeling. In some ways, by exposing the shenanigans of the officials for whom, Gen Tauqir Zia apart, he has very little respect, Akhtar has done the game a great service. But, Controversially Yours, entertaining as it is, must be taken with a pinch of salt. At the very least!

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