“Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. Whatever his lows and whatever his highs, when a hundred years on, a cricket fan makes a list of the fastest bowlers in history, the name of Shoaib Akhtar will always pop up as the first man to break the 100 mph barrier, twice”.
An average Hurricane mapped over a 60 second period only reaches 74 miles per hour wind gusts, a Cheetah attains a speed of 68.66 miles per hour in 2.25 seconds from crouching position, and the holy grail of fast bowling is clocking 100 miles per hour.
Think about it. A cricket pitch is 22-yards or 0.0125 miles. Assuming you were a batsman facing a fast bowler who achieves such a speed, your chances of avoiding a cheetah hurtling at you or a hurricane seeking to flatten you are higher than getting out of the way of such a delivery. At that speed, you have up to three-quarters of a second before the cherry kisses your bat or indeed any unfortunate part of your body that happens to be in the way.
They say of a sniper’s bullet that if you hear it, then you are safe, because it will already have passed safely by. It is the ones that you don’t hear that do for you. It is no different with a cricket ball coming at those speeds, as batsmen across the world have known since Jeff Thomson burst onto the scene in the 1970’s.
In The Art of Fast Bowling, Dennis Lillee wrote about a speed contest conducted at the WACA in December 1975. Jeff Thomson clocked 99.7 mph (160.4 kmph) twice, while Andy Roberts bowled at 99.1 mph (159.5 kmph). The same test was conducted a year later, and Thomson bowled at 99.8 mph (160.6 kph). The 100-mph barrier, however, continued to elude the fast men.
Until Shoaib Akhtar discovered cricket on the streets of Pakistan and happening upon Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis practising at the Pindi Club grounds in Rawalpindi, decided he wanted to be the fastest man in the world. Anything less was not enough.
Meeting a hero and reaching for the sky
Born into an underprivileged Gujjar family in the dilapidated neighbourhood of Morgah in Rawalpindi, Shoaib Akhtar looked destined to be anything but an athlete. Born flat-footed, unable to balance on his feet until the age of three, he almost didn’t survive a bout of whooping cough, an ailment that has a high child mortality rate in many developing countries. But once he recovered from this, the change was almost miraculous.
About the next phase of his life, he says in his candid autobiography Controversially Yours: “Running is the most vivid memory I have from my early childhood. Even then I could run fast, faster than all the other children in my neighbourhood. I ran for no rhyme or reason. I would run up hills, through meadows, down the streets, everywhere and at any given opportunity. I had such high levels of energy that I just coudn’t keep still.”
Shoaib’s elder brother used to play cricket at Pindi Club and when he saw his brother on the cricket field in college, he realized that Shoaib had talent. At a local match soon after when they were a man short, he was drafted into the team. Shoaib describes what happened when he was asked to bowl: “The first ball hit the batsman on the head, the second on the chest. The opposition looked anxious but my captain had a broad smile on his face.”
That first experience and the subsequent encounter with the Pakistani quicks at the Pindi Club would set Shoaib on his path to cricketing success. On his Test debut in 1997 against West Indies in his hometown of Rawalpindi, Shoaib would be part of a pace quartet, bowling with pace and achieving moderate success alongside Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Azhar Mahmood. Pakistan would win the match by an innings. It was exhilarating stuff. Shoaib Akhtar had arrived.
Fast forward to 2000, and a journalist friend took Shoaib to meet a cricketing hero – Jeff Thomson. Shoaib recounts the meeting: “I was invited to have tea with him, so I travelled to Brisbane where he lived with his family. I was warmly welcomed and very soon, cricket took up most of the conversation. The great man smiled at me and said, “Well! Are you going to make a bid for my record?” I answered, “It’s not a pressing goal but the day I feel good and strong, I will break it.” That day would not be long in coming.
Shattering the Barrier – Once is not enough
Two years later, New Zealand came to Pakistan. In the third ODI at Lahore on 27th of April 2002, when Shoaib shaped up to bowl, he was feeling ‘good and strong’. Through his first over the speed kept increasing and in his second over the screen showed his delivery speed at 100.05 mph or 161 kmph. Shoaib Akhtar had broken the barrier and become the fastest bowler in the world. Or had he?
The Pakistan Cricket Board sent out a press release that read: “According to the speed gun operated in the ground by a sponsor, Shoaib Akhtar bowled a delivery at a speed of 161kph during the third ODI between Pakistan and New Zealand at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore.”
The problem, however, was the speed gun. EDH of South Africa was the usual supplier of speed guns. But in this instance, it was a Pakistan based company CyberNet which had supplied the device. The ICC refused to acknowledge the record.
The company sent out a statement defending their machine: “CyberNet wishes to inform that the Speed Radar Gun was imported from the United States. This Speed Radar Gun is called “Stalker Sport” which is used for measuring ball speed in all sorts of international sports. The manufacturer is Stalker USA. The Speed Radar Gun was used in all the three one day internationals played in Pakistan. The accuracy of the Speed Radar Gun is authentic and reliable as it can be tested with an internationally used speed checking device.”
Congratulations and support for Shoaib’s feat to be recognized as official poured in. Pace rival Brett Lee, Justin Langer and Tony Grieg all chipped in with their not inconsiderable clout, but it was all to no avail, and back to the drawing board it was for Shoaib.
Something had changed, however. Shoaib had always had the self-belief, and now he knew he could do it. It was a matter of when the next chance would come and he needed the ICC to be on board and the speed gun to be an official one. The wait would be short.
Eight months later, in February 2003, Pakistan clashed with England at the World Cup. There was something about Shoaib’s second overs. For the second time in eight months as he ran into bowl the sixth ball of his second over, having opened the bowling with Wasim, history was about to be made.
Shoaib recollects: “Early in the match, I realized that I had just bowled unusually fast to Nick Knight, who was at the batting crease. So I began to observe my own speed-it was well into the 90s. I began to push myself harder then, and the speed gun — an official one, if you please-started registering speeds ranging from 94 to 97 mph. Then I began to touch 99 mph and I told myself, this is it, you can do it, run in with everything you have — let’s set a record. The moment the thought sprung into my head, I slowed down a bit. At first I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong but then I began to concentrate on my run-in-where I landed, how I took off. I realized that the problem lay in the last few yards. I made a conscious attempt to sustain my speed till the very end, twisted and swung my arm appropriately and released the ball at the speed of 161.3 kmph; I had broken the 100-mph barrier.”
A Career made for a Potboiler Movie
Shoaib Akhtar’s 444 international wickets earned over the course of a ten-year career at an average of 25, compares well with the greatest fast bowlers in the history of the game. This is particularly those who played more ODI than Tests. But of course, it would be almost too easy for the story to end there.
Shoaib was first called for throwing in Australia in 1999 by umpires Darrell Hair and Peter Willey, and was called again two years later by Steve Dunne and Doug Cowie. He was banned and then a study by the University of Western Australia concluded that his action was the result of “unique physical characteristics.”
You can question the parameters common to the cases of two sub-continental bowlers – Darrell Hair, Australia, instant ban and subsequent redemption citing ‘unique physical characteristics’. But you cannot deny that where Shoaib went, controversy followed.
In 2002, he was hit by a brick thrown from the crowd on a tour of Bangladesh and missed the rest of the tour. In Zimbabwe later that year, it was Shoaib, who, lobbed a bottle into the crowd and seriously injured a spectator. In his book, he admits he was surprised his punishment wasn’t more severe.
He also escaped punishment for ball-tampering. He admits in his book: “Almost all Pakistani fast bowlers have tampered with the ball. I may be the first one to openly admit to it, but everybody is doing it. I won’t name him, but one Pakistani cricketer actually switched the ball in the umpire’s pocket with one that reversed like crazy! Umpires usually keep the ball in their coat pocket and then hang up their coat for lunch. That was when the transfer occurred. After this incident, they now leave their coats in a locked room. To be honest with you, every team in the world tampers with the ball. We probably started it…No team is innocent, and virtually every fast bowler does it.”
Remember this book is published in 2011, so a certain Steve Smith and a certain Dave Warner may well feel they have been victims of a social media lynching and made examples of for a system that has been broken for decades.
After the 2003 World Cup, he was ordered by the Pakistan board to get his life in order. In New Zealand, he was banned for abusing Paul Adams. A year later, he had to appear before a medical enquiry to prove to his disbelieving captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, that he had a back injury.
He was banned for two years for failing a drugs test. The Guardian in a scathing article was to write in 2006: “Shoaib admitted in writing to using the following: Blaze Xtreme, a fat-burning supplement; Nitron5, designed to increase strength; Ergolean AMP, a pre–workout stimulant, no doubt useful for those early-morning sessions after a late night out; Promax 50, a liquid protein diet, “from Fleximuscle of London”; Viper, that unputdownable isotonic drink; and TBomb II, which the Pakistan tribunal pronounced, with the knowledge of men who had studied the medical advice, “jacks up testosterone to the max”. Then there were “herbal medicines from friends” and gym work that, for a sportsman whose commitment has been so often challenged, seemed never-ending. The tribunal referred to “a quite remarkable surgical history,” listing injured right shoulder, numerous hamstring injuries, rib injuries, quadriceps, fractured right fibula, calf muscles, sore back, bilateral mediscus…To end it all, came the drugs analysis from Malaysia that said Shoiab’s sample measured 14.06ng/ml, slightly more than his fellow fast bowler, Mohammad Asif. The threshold of nandrolone allowed is 2ng/ml.”
And finally there is what Shoaib says about his fellow players and Pakistani cricket in his book: “Other than Imran, I’m sorry to say I haven’t met a single cricketer who put the game before himself. Always leaking our disagreements to the media, devising devious schemes to throw this one or that one out, in-fighting, not allowing young talent to grow and thrive-this was the state of our team. So it was not the board alone that ruined Pakistan cricket, it was the team itself.”
Shoaib Akhtar is a complicated man. Rising from a low economic station in society, overcoming birth defects and becoming a world class athlete despite them, living life to its fullest, unafraid to speak his mind and admit to his faults, conquering the peak that every fast bowler dreams of. He has done it all.
Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. Whatever his lows and whatever his highs, when a hundred years on, a cricket fan makes a list of the fastest bowlers in history, the name of Shoaib Akhtar will always pop up as the first man to break the 100 mph barrier, twice.