Shoaib Akhtar Went from Being India’s Tormentor to Pakistan’s Most Savage Critic


Shoaib Akhtar Went from Being India’s Tormentor to Pakistan’s Most Savage Critic

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

Twenty years ago, Shoaib Akhtar went from budding talent to a tormentor of batsmen, especially Indian ones, in the space of two balls. At Eden Gardens in Kolkata, a 23-year-old Akhtar claimed the wickets of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar in successive deliveries – the worthiest scalps a bowler could wish to claim in 1999. The Rubicon was crossed, and from that point on Akhtar never ceased hostilities against his rivals – steaming in like a runaway train off his absurdly long run-up, shooting daggers with his eyes, and hurling thunderbolts at the toes of hapless batsmen over the course of a 14-year career.

When Akhtar wasn’t battling the many injuries and scandals that dogged him in his playing years, he was one of the finest fast bowlers on the planet. He became the first pacer to bowl a delivery faster than a 100 mph, earning a fearsome reputation as a wicket-taker along the way. And of all his rivals over the years, he seemed to cherish playing against India the most. After making a name for himself at Dravid and Tendulkar’s expense in ’99, he returned to torment the Little Master at the 2003 World Cup, dismissing him for 98, when he was painfully close to a century. With Akhtar in the line-up, the Pakistan team could be assured that the opponents were going to come under heavy fire, no matter the result of the game.

However, after retirement, it seems Shoaib Akhtar has found a new target at which to direct his ire, one that had been previously spared his wrath – the Pakistan cricket team. With his days as an active competitor behind him, Akhtar has transitioned, like so many retired legends, to punditry. And oh boy, he is not happy with the Pakistani team in the slightest.

Pakistan’s loss to India on Sunday was as meek as Akhtar’s analysis of the defeat fiery. Social media is the pitch on which he delivers most of his bouncers these days, and it was here that he lashed out at Hasan Ali, who was Pakistan’s most expensive bowler in the match. Akhtar, himself remembered by many for his aeroplane-inspired celebrations, called out Ali for performing his wicket-taking celebration during an appearance at the Wagah Border. “Hasan Ali, who never shies away from jumping around at the Wagah border, couldn’t apply himself when it mattered the most.”

But like most of us, he saved his fiercest salvo for Pakistan’s captain, Sarfaraz Ahmed. “I think it was just brainless captaincy. It’s a very saddening and disheartening performance from the Pakistan team captain. I wanted to see shades of Imran Khan in him, but it’s too late for him now,” said Akhtar, in his post-match analysis on YouTube. The Rawalpindi Express is clearly no fan of the yawning Pakistani skipper, as this is not the first, or even second time that Sarfaraz has found himself in Akhtar’s crosshairs.

But those who faced down the fire and fury of Shoaib Akhtar in the past became legends.

While Pakistan was touring South Africa in January this year, Akhtar called out Sarfaraz for making racist remarks against South African fast bowler Andile Phehlukwayo, demanding an apology. Sarfaraz in turn, claimed that Akhtar was making personal attacks and not offering constructive criticism. Little did he know that asking for an apology would be the most polite interaction he would be having with Shoaib Akhtar this year.

After the Pakistani team’s loss to West Indies in their opening game of the World Cup earlier this month, Akhtar was quoted by a sports journalist as saying, “When Sarfaraz Ahmed came for the toss, his stomach was sticking out and his face was so fat. He’s the first captain I’ve seen who is so unfit. He’s not able to move across and he’s struggling with wicket-keeping.”

Possibly to save Sarfaraz further blushes, former Pakistani wicket-keeper and Akhtar’s contemporary Moin Khan tried to deflect some heat back onto Akhtar by claiming Akhtar was hardly fit during his own career, as his lengthy list of injuries showed. Khan claimed that had Akhtar paid closer attention to his physical fitness, he could have claimed more wickets for the side. Unfortunately for him, Akhtar had a second can of whoop-ass, which he proceeded to open and pour all over Moin Khan with the statement, “I already have 450 international wickets to my name in all three formats. I have single-handedly won many series for Pakistan, which you can only dream of. And secondly, a player will take 450 wickets when his captain is Imran Khan and not Moin Khan.” Ouch. It’s doubtful whether Akhtar has ever left a batsman as thoroughly castled as he did Moin Khan with his clapback.

Still, despite his persistent savagery, it would be unfair to call what Akhtar is doing mere trolling. The man clearly wants to see his side and nation do well. In addition to calling out the Pakistan team on their shortcomings, like when they messed up what should have been an easy defence of 358 runs against England in May, he also posts words of encouragement for the current squad. His Twitter account paints a picture of a man who wants to see the Pakistani team, particularly its fast bowling attack, return to its glory days of being unpredictable and challenging, and as a legend of Pakistani cricket, he has every right to voice his opinion.

The present crop of players must have grown up watching Akhtar’s exploits on the field, hoping to follow in his footsteps. Never would they have dreamed that one day, they would become the targets of his ferocious assaults. But those who faced down the fire and fury of Shoaib Akhtar in the past became legends. Perhaps such a trial by fire is exactly what the next generation of Pakistani players need.