So where does that leave the fast bowler vis-à-vis the upcoming tour? Shoaib's recent performance in Australia before he broke down early in the VB Series and recalled was patchy at best. He bowled superbly in the Perth Test and in the first innings in Melbourne. But surely the team expects more from its spearhead than simply three innings worth. Then to make things worse, rather than manfully accept the extra load, Akhtar has been on record stating:
In fairness one can then ask Mr Akhtar, where does that leave the efforts of Naved-ul-Hasan? Or Mohammed Sami who bowled as well as Shoaib did at Perth but with far less luck? And what of Danish Kaneria who toiled till his fingers bled but without a whisper of a complaint. In fact, it may be well worth Shoaib reminding himself that the last Test Pakistan won was when he was injured (Pakistan v Sri Lanka). Moreover, it was clear to all who watched the VB Series, the one-day squad played better cricket when Shoaib was absent.
Even if Pakistan were depending heavily on Shoaib, it is extremely poor form to belittle the performance of team mates in this way. It shows his lack of respect for the rest of the team and a complete disregard for team spirit.
It is also the case that Shoaib is no longer the bowler that he was in 2003. Two years ago, Akhtar would regularly touch speeds of 150 and above and scintillate crowds with curvy yorkers that beat the world's best. Today that speed level has dropped to 140. The mantle of the fastest bowler in the world should rightfully be claimed by Brett Lee. There has also been noticeable lessening in his reverse and traditional swing bowling ability. Part of the reason must be Shoaib is growing older but more is his failure to maintain a level of fitness necessary for a professional sportsman. For this Shoaib has only himself to blame. He continues to claim 'only he knows his own body' but fails to follow the fitness regimen laid out for him by the physiotherapist. Almost all the other players in the team have shown a marked improvement in fitness levels. Shoaib remains an exception. Instead, he continues to rely almost blindly on his guru, Dr Tauseef Razzaq who judging by Shoaib's injury prone past has done little to improve Shoaib's fitness. Since 2003, the svelte, loose limbed Shoaib, with a Ferrari like run-up and speed to match has been replaced by a much heavier, bulky, muscle bound version who appears far more prone to breakdowns. In contrast, Brett Lee has lost weight, and looks a lean mean supremely fit and honed athlete.
If Shoaib wishes to show he is committed to the team and to his future as an international cricketer it is imperative he quickly gets himself in the kind of shape that will allow him to bowl at top speed for extended periods of time. It is simply not acceptable for him to put in barely three spells of 3 overs each per day. It is even more unacceptable to not get through even a single series without breaking down. He must be raring to go and willing to produce when called upon by the team. Imran Khan recently stated that at Shoaib's age he was ready and able to bowl all day long. Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram have also rightly criticised Akhtar for his lack of fitness and increasing penchant for talking big but not delivering with the ball. So rather than complain about not having a trainer available, it is time Akhtar stops expecting to be spoon-fed and instead slips on the mantle of a responsible and reliable international sportsman. The PCB has said he has been given his fitness schedule and he needs to get on with it.
A positive indicator for the team is there are a handful of fast bowlers coming through, all eager to show their worth. Naved has shown what can be achieved through hard work and dedication. Iftikhar Anjum, Mohammed Khalil and Mohammed Asif are improved bowlers after Australia. Abdur Rauf continues to take stacks of wickets in the domestic season as does Shahid Nazir. Mohammed Irhsad has genuine pace.
There is a new work ethic in the Pakistan team and Shoaib must respect this just as much as any other player. Unless Shoaib changes his current 'self-destruct' attitude and adopts this new work ethic, Pakistan cricket would be better off replacing him with one of the more deserving players.
So what lies ahead for Shoaib? Well, in fact, the onus is on him to show he is as good as his word that he is committed that he is ready to turn over a new leaf and get himself to a level of fitness that is acceptable. A fit and focussed Shoaib is still a potentially devastating bowler and if he does pass a fitness test, thereby showing that he is eager to play for Pakistan, then I see no reason for his exclusion from the team. But enough of taking his team mates, his coach, his manager, the PCB and his fans for a ride. Enough of all the talk and ridiculous claims that pictures of him at a 'nightclub' were doctored. Enough also of driving to the ground in a flash sports car while your team mates walk. It's time for Shoaib Akhtar to show he is still more than just an empty vessel and that he deserves and wants his place as Pakistan's senior and premier strike bowler. It's time for Shoaib to show he can rise above his individualism and embrace the fact that cricket is a team game and not just Shoaib versus everyone else.
The India tour, and the kind of massive exposure that the 'Rawalpindi Express' thrives on - is well within his grasp. The challenge is in front of him. Let's hope that he takes it up with a vengeance. If he does, Pakistan will stand a much better chance of combating what is a very strong Indian team. But if he continues to believe he is a law unto himself and will dictate terms then the selectors and the Board would be better off looking for a replacement. Shoaib Akhtar has been a match winner for Pakistan in the past but Pakistan cricket is strong enough not to be held hostage by one individual.
(Article: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only.
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