Heck to pay


Shoaib Akhtar is politically correct in Bollywood style but does hurl some truths about himself, says Suresh Menon

Controversially Yours
Controversially Yours
Shoaib Akhtar, Harpercollins
290 pp; Rs 499

SHOAIB AKHTAR’S autobiography- by-numbers is a rage-to-richness story, with the right grids filled in with the right colours. Biographies can interpret, while autobiographies must shine a light into the personality, stating facts, joining dots, but leaving the interpretation to the reader. Shoaib (or more correctly, his ghost) can’t be bothered with such subtleties, and the result is a Bollywood type script where the writer might as well have written in brackets (laughter), (shock), (tugging at heart strings), (modesty), (kindness of hero), (anger) and all those emotions that make up the movie mix. There is a temptation to have (sex) or (romance), but Shoaib only hints at the opportunities present rather than opportunities taken advantage of.

Sporting autobiographies are not expected to be literary masterpieces. A few sharp opinions, some dressing room stories and the occasional whine is the formula, and Shoaib sticks to it.

He was a fabulous fast bowler, a frightening combination of pace and unpredictability with the skill to change pace with subtlety. He played only 46 Tests in a decade and a half, which was a travesty, but in that period did enough to be ranked among the fastest bowlers ever, a fact confirmed by technology.

Despite its title and the air of dark secrets revealed, this book is remarkably politically correct. Shoaib is careful not to take potshots at random, and his cracks about Tendulkar and Dravid were clearly aimed at sales. He is properly respectful of the top players and skimps on details when a properly controversial topic or event is touched upon.

What is interesting, however, is that despite the Bollywood approach, nuggets of the personality do slip through. Shoaib tells us of his difficult childhood when money was scarce but love was not, even if that’s like a millionaire romanticising his humble origins. Through accident or design, he’s been in the forefront of many of the evils of modern cricket — ball tampering, drugs, excessive religiosity, money-grabbing, and in Pakistan’s case, political shenanigans. What he’s never been involved with is match-fixing, and his description of its techniques (he was approached, but refused to be involved) is fascinating. As is his description of the drugs-religion-politics culture of Pakistani cricket.

Shoaib is remarkably politically correct, careful not to take potshots. His cracks about Tendulkar were clearly aimed at sales

His need to be loved and taken seriously comes through, as does the fact that South Asian cricket hasn’t figured how to handle a player who is talented but not always on the straight-andnarrow. Shoaib didn’t help his case. An incident in Ireland captures this well: “I was out sightseeing and found myself walking into a street fight… A group of Protestants were defiantly marching through Catholic neighbourhoods looking for trouble, and I joined them for the heck of it…”

For the Heck of It might have made a good title, for Shoaib’s excessive energy ensured he often did things — bungee jumping in the middle of a tour, jet skiing after pulling out through injury — just for the heck of it, and there was heck to pay later. He speaks to god at a personal level, quoting himself in prayer thus: “Boss! I need this one! I need to get him out with my first delivery.” This was before his first delivery to Tendulkar which bowled him (or so we imagine — Shoaib’s reluctance to supply the details through many of the more important passages is irksome).

Shoaib sees himself as the favourite whipping boy of Pakistan cricket, although crucially, he admits: “People think I am unfit now, but I was always unfit. In my self-designed training schedule, I ruined my knees. By the time I entered international cricket, they were already in bad shape.” He had surgery before he made his debut but kept quiet about it. He presents himself as a loveable rascal rather than an unprofessional sportsman, a one-man force rather than a team member, a carrier of burdens rather than a cause for them. Successes are highlighted, failures or bad days are played down or ignored. But again, honesty seeps through the careful wall of non-culpability: “I would have learnt to be more responsible,” he says, if he had been made captain. “But what did I do (when I got the chance)? I ran away to England. I realised too late that I was being extremely self-centred and selfish. Pakistan cricket needed me and I let them down.”

At one point he says, “I am not just a fast bowler; I am a very smart bowler.” And a very smart memoirist too.

Suresh Menon’s biography of Bishan Singh Bedi is published by Penguin India


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