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They love him, they hate him but they swear by him

Akhtar is different, there's no doubting that. Here, at the National Stadium, they're all waiting for him.

india Updated: Mar 09, 2004 02:18 IST
Kadambari Murali
Kadambari Murali

Shoaib Akhtar is different, there's no doubting that. Here, at the National Stadium, they're all waiting for him. The "non-Karachi boys" are expected from Lahore this evening. At the Gaddafi stadium a few days ago, he was the cynosure of all eyes.

The difference was apparent in countless ways. In the dress (everyone else was in trackpants, he was striding around in shorts), it was there in the way he flicked back his hair every now and then and in the casual way he walked off the field, picked up his cellphone and chatted away even as the others went through the grind.

If people here and reports are to be believed, he's also brash, bombastic and blasé to the point of distraction --- for everyone else. They love him, they hate him, but devotee or detractor, they all swear by him. Akhtar is practically a national obsession. To Pakistanis --- from the man on the street to the boardroom men who rule Pakistani cricket --- Akhtar, his problematic back, his right knee, his tendency to shoot off his mouth, his penchant for life in the fast lane, his aversion to control, are matters of national interest that must be handled as such.

But younger teammates laugh away the worries. "The bottomline is that India have to get past Shoaib," says Imran Farhat. "In Shoaib and Sami, we have the best pace attack in the world." And medium pacers like Rana Naveed-ul-Hasan, two matches old, look up to Akhtar with reverence. Rana's claim to fame is that he's from Sheikhupura, "from where Aaqib Javed came," he says proudly. "But Shoaib is Shoaib."

The PCB's line is more circumspect. "He's the one loose cannon in this otherwise disciplined Pakistani squad," says a top PCB official. The PCB is very proud of the way it systematically flushed out non-performers (which is why the return of Saqlain and Afridi has raised questions) and instilled an almost military-style order in the team over the past year. As far as PCB is concerned, it has worked wonderfully.

Since the World Cup in South Africa last year, a painfully humiliating memory for Pakistan, they have won three consecutive Test series at home. Of the 31 one-dayers they played, they won 19 --- including 12 of the 15 they played at home. They attribute this success-rate to a closely-controlled consistency.

Akhtar is the one man who can topple their house of cards. "It's a peculiar problem," says the official. "We all know that Shoaib, if he performs, is the ace in the pack. But past experience has shown that the minute he performs, he tends to be out of control, says what he feels like and does what he wants." He gives the instance of Akhtar telling players after Pakistan lost the one-day series to New Zealand in New Zealand, that when they returned to Pakistan, he would be skipper in place of Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Under the current administration, if it had been anyone but Akhtar, he would have been in deep trouble. But then, no one but Akhtar would probably have made this kind of statement. PCB chief Rameez Raja himself denied that Akhtar ever made the reported remarks but it is generally understood here that Raja had no choice but to -- Inzamam was declared long-term skipper, Akhtar, vitally important for the India series, was admonished.

Former skipper Imran Khan has said Akhtar has changed for the better. "He has matured over the past year," he told reporters a while ago.

It's a little difficult to figure out the 'man who will rout India'. But the mindgames have begun this side of the border. They're there in everything -- from Miandad's statements about Indian bowlers being wet behind the ears and "Ganguly's erratic form", to reams of print on how the famed Indian batting line-up "collapsed" once Brett Lee regained his pace and form in the VB series.

And Akhtar, to most Pakistanis, is better than Lee. For them, anything Lee can do, Akhtar can do better. Akhtar himself insists that things "should not be made out to be a battle between me and the Indian batsmen... it's Pakistan vs India". But there's a sudden, intense look to him that speaks volumes.

Many believe that at the moment, the Rawalpindi Express is keeping to himself for two reasons. He is still haunted by the thrashing he got from Sachin Tendulkar at Centurion, following some rather juvenile remarks he made in the run-up to that game. And he is under immense pressure to perform.

He knows that if he can tame the immensely talented Indian batting line-up in front of his home crowd, he will cross the line from a brilliant but temperamental man to incomparable superman.

First Published: Mar 09, 2004 01:37 IST