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FAST AND FURIOUS

Controversially yours By Shoaib Akhtar with Anshu Dogra, Harper Sport, Rs 499

Fast bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar confides, are like “big babies” who need a lot of pampering. His petulant tone in Controversially Yours suggests that the burly but sincere Akhtar had been deprived of such affection during his career. The gutsy competitor that he is, Akhtar gets back at his detractors — vindictive colleagues, wily former players and an insensitive cricket board — by penning a book with the help of a skilled journalist that offers shocking glimpses of the state of cricket in Pakistan.

Despite his prodigious talent, Akhtar’s 18-year-long career saw him play only 46 Test matches and 163 ODIs. His frequent absences from the national team could be attributed not just to injuries but also to the PCB’s internal feuds that have long been the bane of cricket in Pakistan. Akhtar’s debut was opposed by the captain and some seniors who refused to play if the lad from Rawalpindi made the cut. The PCB actively encouraged such schisms, pushing through favourites and then dropping them unceremoniously during times of crisis. At Perth, when Akhtar’s action was reported by the umpires, the board sided with the ICC and imposed a ban. The Human Movement Institute, run by some of the former greats of the game, certified Akhtar’s action as natural, but the allegations continued as a result of the ICC’s apathy. Again, in 2005, when rape charges were brought against a Pakistani cricketer in Australia, the management tormented Akhtar and did nothing to dispel the doubts despite the fact that he was innocent. Earlier, Akhtar’s domestic team, the PIA, left the teenager to fend for himself in strife-torn Karachi with an alacrity that would even put the unsympathetic mandarins of the BCCI to shame.

The PCB must share the blame for Akhtar’s repeated injuries. Archaic training methods — gymnasiums were introduced for players as late as 2001— and an unbearable workload — bowling more than 20 overs a day — led to Akhtar taking injections, 15 in one knee and 16 in the other, to keep him mobile. The players’ lack of knowledge about their bodies — Akhtar came to know of his abnormal joint movements thanks to the HMI — and the board’s unwillingness to acknowledge peculiar physical conditions led to cricketers hiding injuries. The board’s indifference also created a vendetta culture. Many cricketers, Akhtar writes, indulged in match-fixing or, in Akhtar’s case, ball-tampering to sully the board’s image.

Akhtar’s victimization also mirrors broader class tensions within Pakistan’s cricketing fraternity. Steeped in feudal mores, influential players and officials seemed to have resisted the induction of players from underprivileged backgrounds. (Akhtar’s father, a Gujjar, worked as a nightwatchman, while his mother, a remarkable woman, brought up the family under considerable financial stress.) Poverty must have accentuated Akhtar’s insecurities and the derision he faced intensified his aggression, which, it seems to me, was nothing but a manifestation of his earnest desire to belong. The compulsions of catering to a larger-than-life image also made him a loose cannon, as is evident from his comments about Sachin Tendulkar.

Akhtar’s grumbling notwithstanding, the book is livened up by witty anecdotes. One such concerns a bat-wielding Saqlain Mushtaq chasing the fleeing coach, Javed Miandad, with the entire team following in their wake amidst peals of laughter. The episode symbolizes the vicious ties that bind a talented, unpredictable bunch of cricketers to a vindictive management. One wonders whether the incident is as funny as it appears.

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