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The protagonist

india Updated: Nov 24, 2007 02:58 IST
Rohit Mahajan
Rohit Mahajan
Hindustan Times
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A day before the first Test was to begin, Nasim Ashraf, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, had a rather frank exchange of ideas with Shoaib Akhtar. Fortuitously, among those present in the vicinity was a vigilant hack, who took the precaution of crossing his arms firmly over his chest, obscuring his credentials. He was thus able to record the conversation for posterity.

Ashraf told Akhtar that Pakistan demanded not much of him — just 20 overs a day. Akhtar agreed, his only wish being that he be bowled in spells no longer than five overs.

Which was only fair - with the kind of energy Akhtar expends in each delivery he bowls, five overs at a stretch would be ideal, perhaps even the limit.

On Friday, when Akhtar bowled for the first time in the game, the aforementioned reporter was left grinning from ear to ear. Akhtar bowled 13 overs in the day in four spells of five, three, three and two overs. He picked up a wicket in each of his first two spells, kept his average speed up in the high 130s or 140s kmph region.

The two men he took out were the openers, one on either side of lunch. Dinesh Karthik was had with one that seamed rather than seared away; Wasim Jaffer was slow to a fast, furious delivery that pinned him to the crease, right in front of the wicket.

In the first over of his second spell, Akhtar lacked direction and India raised the tempo; he got Jaffer in the next and Sachin Tendulkar was run out two balls later. Shoaib Malik would have loved to have got another couple from Akhtar later in the day, when VVS Laxman and Mahendra Singh Dhoni seemed to have sprouted roots, yet inching closer to the Pakistan total.

Late afternoon, as the Kotla was bathed in a pale yellow hue that would have turned murky in a matter of minutes, Akhtar tried gamely to breach the defences of Laxman, Dhoni and Kumble. He bowled a total of 30 deliveries to the three, going for 13 runs but failing to get a wicket. The speed gun suggested that his effort had not flagged.

Conversely, when fielding, Akhtar did not to expend too much effort. At the ropes, Akhtar was like a careless bull that had wandered into the field. His shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal his biceps, a floppy hat on his head, arms akimbo like a careless performer on the stage. And he was indeed a performer - turning back to the crowd for a quick repartee, glaring at them at a reproach or grinning at a joke, he was essaying a role that was expected of him.

Akhtar ambled up when the ball rolled towards him, for he clearly was not enthusiastic about straining himself when he did not need to.

The show went on, with the crowd noisily prognosticating a dire future in the game for Pakistan, often crossing the line and getting personal with affronts against some players, like with Danish Kaneria more than once.

In a cricketing world currently inhabited by petulant, whimsical superstars, Akhtar is perhaps the prime enfant terrible. But his worth to Pakistan is undeniable, and his captain, Shoaib Malik, told HT as much in an informal chat. "When he gets going, it's very difficult to handle him," Malik had said. "Shoaib is one man who can really make a difference."

There indeed was a difference in Akhtar on Friday. Yes, like the Akhtar of old, he breathed fire when he bowled — but when he was hit, he resisted the urge to immediately strike back in anger, adding an element of surprise to his skill. And he varied his pace with cunning. The Express has acquired subtlety, even though it may have come at the expense of outright hostility.

Pakistan, and Ashraf, would take that.