I suppose with age, one tends to develop a higher regard for people, objects or events which had defined one’s existence for fear that their value will be completely lost on future generations, slipping into irrelevance. Posterity sets a very high standard and what is regarded as priceless today may not merit entry into the nation’s vault of riches tomorrow.
One such gem is Shoaib Akhtar and we must not let his career be condemned to the footnotes of history.
The cold lens of recollection does not lend itself to understanding the worth of a player such as Shoaib, particularly if one were to consult his career stats. With only 46 tests to show for a career spanning almost 14 years, Shoaib’s numbers reek of underachievement, particularly in light of promising mid-20s averages in both premier forms of the game. However, that’s all they are in danger of being viewed as – ‘promising’ but not ‘great’. To a detached observer, 178 test wickets would not warrant recognition on the same plain as the likes of Wasim and Waqar.
However, to dismiss Shoaib’s place in our history based merely on the sparseness of his numbers would be a monumental oversight. For a brief yet unforgettable moment in time, Shoaib Akhtar captivated a generation. He was not an unfulfilled promise or a cautionary tale of pride before fall. Labeling him as such would suggest that he could have given so much more. Shoaib gave all that he could in the only way he knew how.
His is not an objective greatness, gauged by records and chronological landmarks. His greatness lies in the manner in which he chose to showcase his gifts to the world. True, his star did not burn for long and, even while it did, it flickered in varying capacities. But in those few moments when it sparked, it was a conflagration capable of transfixing an entire nation and incinerating those within range.
Does the above sound like hyperbole? That’s because it is! One must resort to the sensational when recalling Shoaib because his exploits, like the man himself, were larger than life. He forced the greatest batting line-up of his era to kneel in subjugation on multiple occasions. He humbled the little master. He staged remarkable comebacks. More than any other cricketer of my generation, Shoaib made me feel like the impossible was possible. That one man could scare the heck out of 11 others.
Nothing compared to the visceral exhilaration of watching Shoaib hurtling in, exploding onto the bowling crease, uncoiling those hyper-extended elbows, and letting rip a swinging bomb of a delivery. Nothing. Not even the most brutal of Shahid Afridi’s innings can measure up to Shoaib in full flight. It’s the primal beauty of a pure fast bowler, with the aesthetic multiplied ten-fold by Shoaib’s uncompromising individuality. His unflinching and, ultimately, self-destructive refusal to reign himself in. It was art etched in adrenalin.
My earliest memory of Shoaib is also the most vivid and it perfectly encapsulates his appeal. I began following cricket around the time we were dumped out of the 1996 World Cup. Back then, one team stood out as the collective boogey-men of Pakistan cricket.
We couldn’t escape them. No matter where we turned, they were always around to hand us a comprehensive beating. For 14 consecutive ODIs they flogged our spirits, each defeat underscoring our inadequacy.
Until one evening in Sharjah when, in the space of one over, Shoaib reduced South Africa’s dominance to nothingness.
The game had been following the usual pattern. We had been dismissed for a paltry score and the South African machine was striding towards what appeared a predetermined conclusion.
Then Shoaib stepped into the breach and the oppressors became the oppressed. Disregarding history, Shoaib ripped through the middle order with a kind of irrepressible savagery that may have prompted Hansie Cronje, sitting in the commentary box that evening, to wonder whether it was more demon than man which terrorized his team that day. What a sight he was: pounding in, snorting fire and spitting venom. The nation was in raptures. It was a violently cathartic liberation from the heel of the South Africans, all thanks to Shoaib.
Perhaps the cost of such a gift is the inability of it to endure. Maybe it’s not humanly possible to maintain that level of sublime fierceness without succumbing to the reality of your physical limits, for Shoaib was soon off the field, leaving the scraps to his teammates.
That was Shoaib in a nutshell. The ecstasy soon to be followed by the agony. And this is why future generations will resist giving him his due. They will complain that he always broke down. That he was never good enough to reach the heights of Imran and Wasim.
They fail to understand, though, that Shoaib never once aspired to be another Imran or Wasim. To do so would require him to compromise the very qualities that made him unique. Longevity was never an option as he had no interest in being anything other than a fast bowler. Not fast-medium. Just Fast. Even at the end of his career, in his most humble moments, he was unable to hide the necessity of speed to his legacy.
While this pre-occupation set him apart, it threatens to damn him for posterity. Shoaib’s critics will contend that a lifetime of indiscipline and physical self-abuse robbed his country of many years of exceptional service. He is accused of playing only for himself just to indulge his ego.
So what if he was fueled by ego?
What is the problem with a guy trying to prove that he is as good as he thinks he is? If Shoaib’s ego was the driving force behind his career, who are we to judge him for that? There are far worse motivations to represent your country, such as the ones Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Amir were compelled by. I would rather Shoaib don Pakistan’s colours for the selfish need to dazzle the crowd rather than the covetous impulse to betray his country.
It is unclear at this time what history will make of Shoaib. A man who lived for the moment will perhaps best be appreciated by those who lived in that moment with him and I will remember him fondly.
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