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Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Shoaib Akhtar story

This is the Age of Scepticism. How much of what one reads and hears is one to believe? Can sportsmen really hide or distort the truth behind nicely-worded autobiographies penned by named ‘ghosts’?Shoaib Akhtar’s much-publicised autobiography Controversially Yours(with Anshu Dogra, Harper Sport, 2011, price: Rs 499) gives rise to such thoughts.

First off, this is an extremely readable account of the life of a paceman who rose from penury and virtual illiteracy to a position where, for some years he was regarded as the fastest bowler in the world, self-taught himself to speak the English language, to live the high life and to hold his own in any company, however exalted.

The book is an engrossing read, thanks as much to Anshu Dogra’s ability to tell a story — or as Shoaib himself puts it, “ for giving me the words” — as to Akhtar’s colourful and varied life experiences, where his “in your face” attitude invariably landed him into trouble, not always of his own making.

Page after page of the Shoaib story glows with his professed love for things Indian. His dearest friend, Sudesh Rajput is from Delhi. He loves Indian crowds and fans: “I have discovered over the years that Indian cricket fans are warm and generous and know their cricket. As a result, I love playing and touring in India...... I have really been touched by the Indian crowd....”; he admires the cricket set-up in India; he is a great fan of Salman Khan and Bollywood movies: “.... Salman is straight after my heart, he is generous, likes to help people, is a straight talking guy.....”.

He praises the two contemporary giants of Indian cricket, Tendulkar and Dravid but criticises their earlier approach, believing that they were not aggressive enough and not match-winners. In this, he is wrong, for figures prove the contrary. But as a great votary of the constitutional right of ‘free speech’ once said, “He is completely wrong in what he says, but I will defend to my last breath his right to say it”.

Shoaib believes that the induction of aggressive players like Sehwag, Yuvraj, Gambhir and Kohli, benefited the two great older stalwarts. Tendulkar, he believes, is “more at ease” now, where earlier “the poor man carried the entire burden on his shoulders”. Dravid, he writes, “has a great technique” (how perceptive, Mr Akhtar) “but has never been a match-winner” (wrong again, Mr. Akhtar!).

He also makes an unwarranted remark about Tendulkar, then handicapped with a tennis-elbow, “walking away from” a particularly fast ball which “he didn’t even touch” in a match at Faisalabad. If the comment was meant to convey that Tendulkar was “running away”, it is so utterly incredible that it can only be described as an untruth, a lie. More likely — in this Age of Scepticism — it’s a throw-away line, intended to boost sales?

Yet, despite an occasional demonstrable untruth, strangely, Shoaib comes across on the whole, as an honest, shooting straight-from-the-shoulder, god-fearing, loyal, brash young man.There is something almost childishly naive in his early self-belief that he would become a great cricketer one day, with a touch of emotional ‘teary-eyedness’ in his friendship with Aziz Khan, the tongawala outside Lahore Railway Station.

Akhtar, penniless and forlorn, sought some food and help from thetongawala. “He looked at me and said, ‘tu hai kaun?’ (Who are you?) I remember him smiling and asking why he should oblige me. Because when I joined the Pakistan team one day, I would come back to meet him, I said.In this manner, I managed to convince Aziz Khan, the tongawala, to share his bedding and sleeping space with us, and that night we slept peacefully on a footpath in Lahore”.

Shoaib kept his promise, when he returned from his debut series in India in 1999.

Though now famous and in an elite league, “I headed towards the railway station to look for Aziz Khan, the tongawala who had given me shelter six years ago.”

An emotional re-union took place. The crowd gathered around them. Aziz Khan pointed to them and said, “Look how many people recognise youand are dying to take you to their homes now”. I said: “Yes, but you were the one who gave me shelter when I was unknown, so I recognise you alone and am here to meet only you”.

His everlasting regret is that he did not play in the Imran era. He hero-worships Imran: “The Pakistan team is mostly made up of players who have come from economically challenged backgrounds and have been deprived of an education. So we learn everything from cricket; it is our educational institution. We learn to speak English, drive cars and conduct ourselves. Therefore, we are very vulnerable and need good, strong mentors to protect us and take us in the right direction. Somebody like Imran khan, for instance, who in my opinion has been our greatest captain. He was a fabulous bowler and all rounder who nurtured talent.... was selfless and hardworking and was an example to all of us.”

Almost everyone and everything else in Pakistan cricket earns a caustic tongue lashing. The PCB and its various Chairmen:“uncaring, incompetent and self-obsessed guys” (except Khalid Mahmood and Tauqir Zia); the captains he played under, (except Amir Sohail), the worst being reserved for Shoaib Malik: “a ghulam, a slave who would jump through hoops for them”;his coaches, especially Intikhab Alam and Wasim Raja. Sample this: “In general, our coaches have had nothing to offer, apart from playing dirty politics. They just want to earn some money and travel in their old age — bas! Take Intikhab Alam: he is the most illiterate man you could meet. He has no clue what coaching is all about and can’t distinguish an in-swinger from an out-swinger, but he gives us advice!”. Strong words.

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