Smokers’ Corner: Rough diamonds By Nadeem F. Paracha Sunday, 19 Sep, 2010

So much has been lamented about maverick Pakistani tear-away bowler, Shoaib Akhtar.

Over the years his critics have believed that he was too unpredictable, quarrelsome and injury-prone — not to forget having a history studded with reports about a number of questionable indulgences involving both medical and recreational substances.

However, what got missed in all the racket about Akhtar’s eccentricities was something that is now sticking out like a beacon: his impressively clean slate regarding the whole issue of match and spot-fixing.

I am surprised that nobody has yet spotted (pun not intended) the irony of it all. Pakistan cricket’s most celebrated bad boy has never even mildly been accused of what has turned out to be Pakistan cricket’s worst nightmare. 

It seems his critics had spent more time whining about Akhtar’s wild antics than they did to weed out the ‘good boys’ who may have shined like exemplary men of piety and patriotism, but have, in one way or the other, been both directly and indirectly accused of match/spot fixing.

In 2000 Justice Qayyum’s Report named only seven cricketers who were found to be totally clean from any match-fixing connections (in the 1990s).

They were Imran Khan, Rameez Raja, Rashid Latif, Azhar Mahmood, Aamer Sohail, Aquib Javed and Shoaib Akhtar. Furthermore, the inquiry suggested that the two leading culprits of the match-fixing scam were former Pakistan captains, Saleem Malik and Wasim Akram.

Malik and fast bowler, Attaur Rheman, were banned for life, while heavy fines were imposed on Akram. However, all of them pleaded innocence and defined the evidence against them as a conspiracy born out of ‘professional jealousy’ exhibited by the journalists and players who’d accused them before the judge compiling the report.

Fines and warnings were also clamped on a number of other players who were said to have been either involved or were aware of match/spot-fixing scams but kept quiet about it. These included Mushtaq Ahmed, Waqar Yunus, Inzimamul Haq, Saeed Anwar and Akram Raza. Saqlain Mushtaq and Ijaz Ahmed too were named. 

The recent match/spot-fixing scandal that has erupted and involves at least three leading Pakistani players is threatening to fling open a dangerous Pandora’s Box.

It might bring into light accusations of match-fixing scams many Pakistani players have been facing for the last many years.

One wonders as to why the cricket board and captains leading Pakistan in the last decade or so were more concerned about the antics of players like Shoaib Akhtar alone?

It was as if he was unconsciously being used to distract one’s attention from growing concerns in certain cricketing circles about many Pakistani cricketers’ involvement in various devious activities in cahoots with shady bookies.

Shoaib Akhtar is a classic example of what happens to an individualist in a team culture that operates as a mob or as a group dotted with various self-serving cliques.

An individualist automatically gets sidelined or ostracised even if the team is performing well. Akhtar’s case reminds one of two other similar cricketing characters of the past: fast bowler Sarfraz Nawaz and stylish left-handed batsman, Wasim Raja.

Individualists by nature, Raja and Nawaz were never able to find room in any grouping in the team, nor were they ever fully accepted in a more united batch. 

Australia’s Ian Chappell and Pakistan’s Imran Khan suggest that such players, who are immensely talented but awkwardly individualistic, need an astute and sensitive captain; otherwise much of their talent can go waste. Raja was one such talent.

An Afridi of his time, he played his best cricket under Mushtaq Muhammad — who in his autobiography also describes how he once diplomatically handled a ‘drunken outburst’ by Raja on the 1977 Australian tour in which the eccentric batsman had trashed his hotel room. 

According to Mushtaq loners like Raja and an enfant terrible like Nawaz may be individualistic, but this does not mean they only play for themselves.

They are not selfish. Far from it. Raja’s form began to decline after Muhstaq was replaced as captain in 1979. He bid farewell to cricket in 1985, with all of his following captains lamenting that he was too irresponsible and idiosyncratic.

Sarfraz Nawaz was a louder and more boisterous version of Raja. He performed well under Mushtaq and Imran, but was severely manhandled by Asif Iqbal so much so that Nawaz simply refused to play under him.

Just like Akhtar, Nawaz too was known to have a vociferous appetite for clubbing, but Mushtaq maintains that in spite of Nawaz being the toughest player to handle, he was also the hardest working on the field.

Akhtar is a throw-back of the kind of fast-living, flamboyant and wild-child players found in world cricket in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was his bad luck that when he became a regular member of the Pakistan squad, the culture of the team started changing radically.

Match-fixing allegations, greed and divisions saw Pakistani captains like Inzamam-ul-Haq begin to turn the squad into a single group united by a born-again version of Islam. 

Akhtar stood out like a sore thumb, and Imran is right when he suggests that had Akhtar got a more sympathetic captain, he would have become one of the leading wicket takers of Pakistan. But that was not to be, and Akhtar’s career remained wrecked by his squabbling with captains, coaches and cricket officials. 

It is interesting to note that in spite of a decade-long attempt to ‘Islamise’ the team in which Akhtar’s unholy antics were severely scoffed at, it is he alone who today stands as perhaps the only noted player of the last ten years who is entirely untouched by a match-fixing scandal.

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