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Akhtar: The rider on the storm

Can the Pindi Express get past the dope scandal? Shoaib might yet pull it off, writes Kadambari Murali. Your take?

india Updated: Oct 21, 2006 05:35 IST

Six years ago, the man then in the midst of an ICC ban because of a suspect bowling action, was searching for redemption. Speed, he reasoned, would do it for him. “I live life on my own terms,” he would later say. “And people adjust.” 

By all accounts, Shoaib Akhtar has lived life on his own terms. Speed has been his salvation and speed, allegedly in more than one form, could be his nemesis, at least as an international cricketer. 

But with Shoaib — one of those men who can compete with the proverbial cat with nine lives — you never can tell. Will he get past this latest scandal? The answer has to be: If anyone can, Shoaib can.

I am like a wild horse who just needs to be let loose…

Shoaib Akhtar, circa 2000

What is known so far is this: Shoaib tested positive for nandrolone, a life-saving steroid best known in its avatar as a performance-enhancing drug for sportsmen. Pakistan has already set up a tribunal to look into the scandal. This is strange as tribunals are usually set up only after a second sample report confirms a positive drug test. And that is, as yet, unknown.

Shoaib’s spin-doctors now say that he has a breathing problem for which he was using both a Ventorlin spray and prescribed tablets. But other than the Pakistan Cricket Board top brass, the news of Shoaib’s ‘breathing problem’ has come as a surprise. Not one person in Pakistan’s gossipy cricketing fraternity had apparently any knowledge of it. 

The man with the strange Irish-Punjabi-Pindi accent wasn’t always this wild. When he lived near the Attock Refinery Limited (ARL) in Morgah, a lower middle-class neighbourhood, and first caught the public eye, Shoaib had an untamed fire. “Usme kya junoon tha,” recalls a Pakistani journalist, talking of how the cricket player, flat-footed in the extreme, would spend hours horse-riding in an effort to correct the problem. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do. It was easy to believe that he would have the world at his feet one day.”

But the timing was off. Imran Khan had moved on to other things and Camp Pakistan, which would proceed to have a string of insecure captains, had begun a decade of tumult. 

Shoaib was left to his own devices, and it showed. The wine, or his preferred tequila shots, the women — in Shoaib’s own words they were good only for one thing, the fast cars and bikes, the discos. If they were around, you could be sure that Shoaib would be around too. 

“There is no doubting Shoaib’s insecurity,” says an Indian cricketer, asking not to be named. “He needs to show that he is the best.” For Shoaib, everything has to be bigger, better. 

Last year when he signed up for the County season, he protested about two things. One: he was given an E-class Mercedes instead of the S-class he felt he deserved. And two: he was allotted a three-bedroom bungalow instead of the five-bedroom one he felt was more in keeping with his status. Chatting with a group of Indian cricketers, Shoaib asked how much money they earned from endorsements. “That’s nothing,” he replied, and then proceeded to rattle off his own earnings — in  pound sterling. “He only speaks in pounds,” recounted a player who was present. “Rupees, Indian or Pakistani, don’t figure in his scheme of things.”

Another time, a couple of Indian cricketers were admiring a Mercedes parked outside the Gaddaffi stadium in Lahore. Shoaib walked up, pointed out the car’s features with pride and talked about how much he had paid for it. Even as he was talking about ‘his’ car, somebody walked up and drove it away. Shoaib was flustered but just for a second. He had got someone else to drive ‘his’ car home, he said.

But it’s not just flash. Shoaib is also drawn to danger, even when it borders on the ridiculous. He once drove a motorbike into the field just to irritate the team management. On another occasion, he provided a few amused Indian players with alcohol in dry Pakistan.

Just before Pakistan’s tour of South Africa ahead of the last World Cup, he was let off early from the series to go home and get a sore knee in order. Shoaib decided to take a detour to Durban for a week to hobnob with Bollywood stars present there. He didn’t even bother being discreet:  getting photographed with Amitabh Bachchan, dancing in discotheques and pretty much doing what he wanted.

He was reprimanded, of course, and, just as inevitably, let off. Everyone knows that when Shoaib is fit, he is a match winner. And behind everything is obviously the cricket. He thought so too. “It gets your blood going, adrenaline pumping. You’re in a fight. To me, that’s what Test cricket is all about,” he said. 

The tragedy of Shoaib Akhtar is that it is his off-the-field antics that make him larger than life. Shoaib provided one of the most vivid scenes of that historic Indian tour of Pakistan three years ago. The Pakistan players had taken to doing namaaz together several times a day. Only two people refused to join in: the then Yousuf Youhana, an avowed Christian, and Shoaib, who refused to wear his religion on his sleeve. He took it to extreme lengths though. At the stadium, clad in shorts, he walked right in front of his praying teammates, shoes in his hands and a big grin on his face. It caused a ruckus. He didn’t seem to mind.

Shoaib Akhtar has many avatars. The fearsome paceman, the spoilt, authority-hating brat, a Unicef goodwill ambassador, a would-be actor, the man who refuses to grow up.

Soon after his latest drug scandal broke, ICC chief Malcolm Speed remarked that only history could judge Shoaib. True enough. This is one story that is yet unfinished.