On the eve of Pakistan’s 29th Independence Day (August 13, 1975), the modest Akhtar household near Rawalpindi rejoiced the birth of a son. His mother would name him Shoaib. Years down the line, he would put the region in the world map and go on to earn the moniker – the Rawalpindi Express. Shoaib Akhtar went on to be the fastest bowler and one of the most exciting cricketers in the world. On his 45th birthday, Suvajit Mustafi recalls the moment when he truly announced himself to the world.
The mention of Shoaib Akhtar and Gary Kirsten in the same sentence brings back the horrid memories of the 2003 Lahore Test. Kirsten was beaten for pace as an angled-in bouncer from Shoaib landed on his head. Shoaib stood aghast as a bloodied Kirsten walked out. Months before that Test, during the World Cup, the bowler had clocked 100 miles per hour. But, Kirsten, who later went on to be an illustrious coach, spotted Shoaib’s talent many years earlier.
Shoaib recently revealed that in 1994, as an 18-year-old, he stunned the then South African opener in the nets. He was a net bowler, and Kirsten knew it that the teenager was made for the big stage. He told Shoaib that he would let the Pakistan team management know of him. It took Shoaib another three years to earn his Pakistan cap and two more years to earn a name. It all happened on a 1999 spring day, in Kolkata. I will come to that.
The 90s was an excellent time to be a fast bowling fan and not quite a good time to be a batsman. There were several skilful pacers across the world, but when it came to hurling the ball at a serious pace and being effective at the same time, Allan Donald and Waqar Younis were the names to watch out for.
Shoaib would go on to make his debut in late 1997 when his career coincided with another promising youngster – Mohammad Zahid. Brian Lara would later call Zahid the ‘fastest bowler in the world.’ For a brief while, the spotlight fell on Zahid as Shoaib struggled to make the cut in a Pakistan pace attack that comprised of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
In 1999, Pakistan arrived in India for the historic tour. From Shiv Sena vandalising the Feroz Shah Kotla wicket to Sachin Tendulkar’s Chennai feat to Anil Kumble’s perfect-10, the tour is etched in the history books for many memorable reasons. The first leg of the tour – the two-Test series ended 1-1. Shoaib didn’t play a part in that.
Till then, he had modest numbers – only 16 wickets from eight Tests at almost 44. Almost a year back, in his third Test, he claimed a five-for at Durban in which he had clean bowled Jacques Kallis, Lance Klusener, Mark Boucher and Fannie de Villiers. The Durban Test from 1998 seemed ages ago. In a land infested with quality pacers, Shoaib needed to be consistent.
All wasn’t well in the Pakistan camp after the side’s Delhi loss against India. Reportedly, the two great Ws – Waqar and Wasim were at war. Kolkata was the venue for the next Test, which was also the first of the inaugural Asian Test Championship. Waqar was dropped, and Shoaib got the nod.
India taking on Pakistan at the grandest of all stages – Eden Gardens, Kolkata – where a capacity crowd of over a lakh turned in every day. The Indian batting boasted the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman.
But Shoaib was a showman. He loved the spotlight. He lived for the grand stages. The world would soon go on to realise that.
From 26 for 6, a Moin Khan-resistance saw Pakistan crawl to 185.
Day Two. February 17, 1999. It was a big day in my life. Barely a teenager, I was finally going to watch an international match at a stadium. There couldn’t have been a bigger occasion — India vs Pakistan at a 100,000-plus-packed Eden Gardens.
As I walked towards the stadium with my mother, I was amused to see the policemen on horses ferrying the iconic maidans. Entering the coliseum felt like a security check in an airport. A security official scolded me for carrying posters of my idol – Sourav Ganguly and some slogans written on chart papers. They were banned. Why? Eden crowd had made quite a name for its notoriety. My mother kept reminding me that. They had a reputation of torching papers or using them as paper missiles. My creative pieces were taken away. My disappointment soon turned into excitement as I met a teenaged Harbhajan Singh on my way to the stand. I entered the stadium at 8 am to watch all my heroes practice.
Dravid looked extremely solid in the nets and would look the same later on. Tendulkar was busy signing caps for the ball boys. Jaws dropped, I gazed them at awe.
The day commenced. There was rhythm and flow when Wasim ran into bowl. It seemed like poetry. Wasim was like a master with a plan. Shoaib was something else. Nothing that I had seen till then. The more fast he ran in, the faster he bowled. In real-time, from the stadium, I could hardly notice the ball land. He ran in; I could see a puff of dust on the pitch and then Moin Khan collect it behind the stumps.
Shoaib, who had cleaned up Laxman on the previous day, kept steaming in all day without much of success. A packed Eden Gardens cheered for every Indian run as the hosts moved to 147 for two with Sadagoppan Ramesh and Dravid going steady. Drinks was taken, and India were on top. Dravid had occupied the crease for close to hours. This was the first ball of the 51st over of Indian innings. Shoaib sprinted in, bowled a low full-toss, that curved in towards Dravid’s toes and clattered the leg-stump before the bat could come down. Here was a world-class batter completely beaten by the pace.
The luxury of replays helps us analyse a lot of things. Watching it live, I saw Shoaib bowl, and within the eyeblink, the Wall was breached.
Eden got quieter. A lakh-odd scream converted to murmurs. Then a collective realisation hit. Tendulkar, 25, walked out to bat. Eden hit its record-high decibels for the day. I couldn’t hear my mother sitting next to me. The romance of cricket in the 90s revolved around this man. The Chennai knock against the same opposition was barely a fortnight back. He had played one of the innings of the generation there. He could do no wrong. Here was another man who played for the occasion. Be it a World Cup or Hero Cup semis or the Sharjah or the toughest of overseas tours, India’s fortunes would always remain pinned on this little curly-haired man, who had attained the status of a demigod.
Would the bat convert into a magic wand in Kolkata? We all hoped so. The excitement of the arrival of the world’s best batter made the lakh-odd forget what had happened a minute back.
It seemed as that the noise was shaking the stadium. By the time Tendulkar was at the crease, the decibels at Eden had reached new records. Off the stadium, many Gods may have been remembered; crowds may have gathered around available TV sets, million-odd nails may have been unnoticedly sacrificed to respective sets of teeth. Back in those days, Tendulkar’s arrival at the crease was a unique festival which was never seen before or after. This was bigger. This was Eden and an opposition you aren’t allowed to fail against.
He shadowed an on-drive, then came the usual crouch before he scanned the field placement. He took guard. I was about to witness my first Tendulkar innings live from a stadium. Shoaib raced in and hurled it with the usual fury. What my mind registered next was the same Tendulkar shadow I had witnessed seconds before... but before the bat could land the middle-stump was sent for a cart-wheel. The action took place in fractions of a second while it took me a few seconds to fathom what had happened.
Tendulkar was dismissed for a golden duck. The ball that started a bit wider outside off-stump, darted in. Tendulkar did pick the full length, went for the booming on-drive and was beaten by the sheer pace.
One could hear a pin drop at Eden. It took a second to convert the deafening arena to a vipassana centre. I was there, and it’s no exaggeration. You could later read Shoaib’s own words.
A moment back, I couldn’t hear my mother in the next seat. I could now hear a jubilant Shoaib scream. More than grief, the emotion was of shock. As Tendulkar walked back, the Eden was as loud as the stadiums we play on in the corona world.
Shoaib had announced himself to the world. I feared him. He made a reputation for himself. In years to come, no bowler would be feared as much as him. Controversies took a front seat in his career, but by the time he hung his boots, he was one of the greatest and most feared fast bowlers ever. Shoaib would run through sides consistently and keep providing the Eden-like moments often. Be it dismissing Ricky Ponting, the Waugh twins and Adam Gilchrist in a span of 11 balls or flooring the world-class Brian Lara, cricket has seldom seen exciting figures like Shoaib. He did all of these with weak knees. He would often limp out of his bed during his playing days.
Returning to the topic of eerie silence and empty stands. The memorable Kolkata Test itself ended in front of empty stands due to crowd trouble, something my mother kept fearing throughout the Day Two. It all started with Tendulkar’s run out in the second innings where Shoaib was again involved. He wasn’t the bowler this time. Tendulkar’s collision with Shoaib at the non-striker end led to the former’s run out. This led to crowd trouble where police had to get involved.
India ended up losing the Test and Shoaib ended up claiming eight wickets from the match.
Here’s how the first chapter of Shoaib’s autobiography, Controversially Yours, starts: “It could be any ground on the globe, but it has to be a Pakistan versus India match to get a crowd so involved. And if the ground happens to be Eden Gardens, Kolkata, in India, any opposing team, but especially one from Pakistan, faces 100,000 plus eleven opponents. And if you happen to be a young and unknown Pakistani pace bowler who has just taken the wickets of Rahul Dravid, one of the most accomplished batsmen, you can feel 100,000 eyes boring into you while a deafening roar pours out to 100,000 throats as their hero, Sachin Tendulkar, walks in. But if you knock off his stumps with your first delivery to him, your ears meet with a deafening and almost eerie silence. I did it, I thought, I did it, as I pressed my forehead to the ground with gratitude. I knew I had finally shaken off the dust of Morgah.”
I feared him. I disliked him. Kolkata or let’s say India echoed the same feelings those days. As calendars rolled by, and as I grew up to love the sport more than the team I supported, my romanticising with Shoaib began. Kolkata too would later go on to love him and accept him as their own. In the inaugural edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL), he was a part of the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) contingent. The packed Eden cheered for Shoaib on a hot May day when he sent back the usual crowd favourites - Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, AB de Villiers and local boy Manoj Tiwary inside five overs.