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Wings of Gold, Feet of Clay

Wings of Gold, Feet of Clay

Or how you learned to start worrying and stop loving Icarus

 

You remember growing up in the Pakistan of the 90s. There were certain truths that you accepted as fact. Pakistan was a gift from God, Indians would never accept the existence of your homeland, Pakistan was brimming with talent in all facets of life all of which was untapped because of your gutless leaders and the army were your heroes . Oh, and also, Pakistan would forever produce fast bowlers.

That’s why you didn’t take much notice of the kid joining the team in 1997; just another fast bowler you thought. Then he took a five-fer against South Africa (quickly becoming your least favourite team because they always punished Pakistan for their failure to plan). Suddenly, you liked this kid, he was like a raw, robotic Waqar – his action, his persona, everything screamed of imitating Waqar. You could relate to that. He was with the team for the next twelve months or so, never doing all that much. You had seen your fair share of third-seamers who looked good but didn’t do all that much, for one reason or another (Zahid, M.Akram  and Shahid Nazir most memorably). The team was still about Wasim, Waqar (when fit) and Saqlain. It all changed in Kolkata, though.

Photo: Cricinfo

Kumble and that umpire had won the 2nd Test in Delhi. India trying to make sure that Pakistan’s deserved win at Chennai was cancelled. They also gave Tendulkar the man-of-the-match; you learnt from the newspapers that the Indians had a habit of giving their heroes MotM awards even when their team lost. Plus ça change. You also read that Steve Dunne should have been MotM for keeping India in the game. You thought that was a bit rich coming from the Pakistani press corps.

So everyone went to Kolkata. Of course, it was the third Test of this series – no matter what the officials might have said. You remember bunking school, to listen to the match on a transistor radio that another kid brought to class. Pakistan were 20 odd for five when everyone decided it just wasn’t worth listening to; might as well go to classes now that you were in school. By the time you got back home from school, Pakistan had recovered. You remember day 2, again on the radio, two balls that got two wickets. Sounded pretty simple. Later that day you watched those two wickets. Jaw on the floor, smile on the face, heart in love. Shoaib Akhtar had become SHOAIB AKHTARTM! It wasn’t those two balls that did it. Well of course it was those two balls too, but it was the celebration – down on his knees, arms raised in a V, imploring God to accept this blessing, looking like Ozymandias, forcing the mighty and the meek to look upon his works. This wasn’t the manic anger release of Wasim nor the fist-pumping fuck-yous that Waqar specialized in. This was what you would have done if you had got Tendulkar for a golden duck.  You had your generation’s hero.

And he remained your hero, for the longest time. He made Ganguly’s ribcage his personal dartboard in the next series; then he went to the World Cup and showed the world his big brass balls. The newspapers blamed him for the South Africa loss in the Super Sixes. You hated them for attacking your hero. Pakistan came back disgraced, you still loved the lot. Your elders kept telling you to stop investing so much into a bunch of crooked, treasonous charlatans. You hated them for attacking your heroes.

He would make Sharjah his playground and everyone his bitch. Except when he went to Australia later in 1999. These Aussies were insufferable. You hated them for attacking your heroes, literally in this case. A few months later when Australia went to India, you supported India in that series. It takes a special team to turn a nationalist Pakistani teenager into an Indian fan, even for one series. Steve Waugh’s team was pretty special.

As was Shoaib. Unlike the Ws, you knew of a world without him, and you didn’t fancy a return to that. Shoaib was the fantasy. In a country obsessed with bowling fast, looking good and living wild, he became the ultimate superhero. The culture of the middle class didn’t allow you many heroes – the TV actors were blasé, the film world was for the plebs, only the musicians allowed you someone to look up to, but they were sinners too. The national team, though, was noble – a representative of Pakistan: a country insecure of its identity and the fact that no one outside the borders was aware of its existence. There was a reason “mulk ka naam roshan karna” and “cricketers are ambassadors of the country” were seen as acceptable everyday phrases. Sportsmen were supposed to be role models; Imran was the ambassador for the generation that raised you; all suave, class and grace. They didn’t fancy Shoaib though. And you loved him even more for that. He played the angry young man better than Amitabh ever did. Between the popularization of Junoon and the rise of the burger bands of the early noughties, he was the only true rockstar in the country.

The Pakistan train rolled on, getting worse by the minute, saved by Shoaib. He made New Zealand bow to him a few times. He even went to Australia and made Bill Lawry orgasm. He won a series for Pakistan. In Australia. With all three matches being day-night – perfect for the Pakistani audience. In the middle of your summer holidays. Sometimes the stars just align to create a memory and create a false sense of hope. A hope you would carry into the World Cup. Later that year he took that Australian team on singlehandedly and almost beat them. THAT spell in Colombo. Sweat, power, anger; he was like a Jeremy Clarkson dream. Shoaib was in his zone.

Meanwhile, the world called him a chucker. You hated them for attacking your hero.  He became injury prone, breaking down more often than an old Alfa Romeo. People said he was a liability and a luxury – that he had nothing on true greats like Wasim and Waqar. You pointed out that those same people had spent a decade complaining about the injury records of the two Ws, and also that they would be hated if they attacked your hero.

The World Cup came around. You assumed Pakistan would reach the super-sixes. You had so many great players, led by Shoaib in his peak; surely they would raise their game, just like they did in Australia the previous summer. They didn’t. You remembered the congratulatory programs and songs before the team went to South Africa; everything was focused on Shoaib. The newspapers accused Tauqir Zia of treating Shoaib like the prince of PCB (of course you hated them for saying such a thing). You knew that these guys would shut up when Shoaib won the match against India – this being at a time when you just assumed that Pakistan would beat India (the three WC losses in the 90s being coincidental). Shoaib failed to defend 270 odd. Pakistan failed to defend 270 odd! Nothing was real anymore. The match was over within the first ten overs. Razzaq had dropped a catch, Shoaib had dropped far too short, and there was no coming back from that. Something broke that day.

Over the next few months, you remembered him saying that he would have been better served being born in Australia, you remembered the reported preferential treatment he got from the PCB, all the injuries and the matches missed. Seeds of doubt in your mind they were. You tried to ignore them. You told yourself, Shoaib would be back, stronger than ever. He would lead a young generation of fast bowlers to the Promised Land. He was finally the true leader of the attack, since Aamir Sohail had decided to rip the heart and soul out of the team.

He continued as he had been doing before the World Cup. Match winning performances, diva-like dramas, controversial statements and raising the hair on the back of your neck. He was the lone wall that stood between you and torture (usually from Sehwag’s bat during those post-2003 years). World cricket was changing; everyone was getting players for every ‘role’. Your team still existed in the 1980s, no quality openers, no strategies, no problems. You had Shoaib. And Sami.

In fact, Shoaib’s greatness stemmed from the man that partnered him. Fazal had started the school of Pakistan fast bowling with all guile and no pace. Imran took that and added pace. Wasim took both those things and raised them to the ceiling. Waqar took the ceiling for pace and broke through it, but ignored the guile somewhat. Shoaib turned it up to 11, guile was only to be done when pace failed. By the time Sami came around the glass had tipped; guile was as dead as a Norwegian parrot. Sami made you realize how idiotic the Pakistani obsession was. Pace was not everything. You couldn’t reduce Shoaib to pace (even though he tried, with his obsession with the speed gun), he was far more complete than that.

Shoaib started getting injured more. The seeds of doubt increased. The Worcestershire chairman called him a diva. You hated him for it. Bloody goras not able to understand the oriental rockstar; they were just jealous, as they had been in 1992, as well as many others instances. Inzi called him out for not being committed for the cause. You… you couldn’t hate Inzi. Everyone could call Shoaib something and you would’ve argued for him; but not if it was one of the 90s boys. You never support your elder brother over your father.

But Shoaib still had one last miracle in him. England came to Pakistan having beaten Australia and being praised to the seven heavens by their media. Shoaib and Inzi cut them into the tiniest pieces and ate them with a jar of mayonnaise. Oh those slower balls, those yorkers, how you cheered, how you laughed at the English batsmen.

You really liked that team; it restored most of your faith after the ’99 and ’03 debacles. Of course, you could never lose complete faith; you were too much of a sports nerd; cricket was too much of a social thing. The whole family would watch the matches together, the following day you would discuss it with everyone in school; cricket was the glue of your generation. For some the glue came off in ’99 or in the years following it, you weren’t one of them. Even now you don’t know why.

But you do know that you loved Woolmer’s team. There was the adorable young wicketkeeper who was later switched with a body-double who was neither adorable nor a wicketkeeper. Inzi was the head of the household with his broken English, the Saharan sense of humor and quiet leadership with the bat. Alongside him was a generation of average cricketers who played their roles exceptionally well. And in MoYo and Younis, the greatest double act the country had seen since Alif Noon. Shoaib was the top layer and the cherry.

Shoaib at his peak was something beautiful. A six foot blob of overflowing testosterone; a hunter in the wild whose game was man; the scariest bull outside of Pamplona; a man who made a nation hope and cheer; the most Pakistani man that ever lived – ridiculously over- the-top, self-centred and confident to the point of being delusional. He was also sure the world was out to get him, and he was the only sane thing in the world. He was the living embodiment of the fucked-up country that is Pakistan.

Alas, you were no longer that idealistic boy; the seeds of doubt were beginning to sprout. You needed something different. You found it a few months after Shoaib’s greatest series.

Mohammad Asif was unique, in every sense of the word. Watching him bowl was like being a six year old kid at a magic show. Oh, how you loved him. (I’ll wait for you to read that piece before coming back to read the rest of this)

(Welcome back) Then Oval happened, and everything went to the fertilizer. The jenga tower of both the team and the country had one too many pieces removed. The next four years saw you become a cynic, and deservedly so.

The country saw Musharraf, emergency, removal of the chief justice, the lawyers’ movement, May 12th, BB’s death, delayed elections, Zardari, annual floods, crippled economy, terrorist attacks, sectarian conflict and Rehman Malik. The cricketing country saw the Oval fiasco, Younis refusing captaincy, Shoaib giving Asif the drugs and getting both of them banned, Shoaib hitting Asif with a bat, Woolmer’s death (!), Inzi’s retirement, Malik’s delusions of grandeur, the attack on the Sri Lankan team, Nasim Ashraf, the mutiny against Younis, Asif’s first ban, Sydney and St Lucia, the mutiny against MoYo, the continued presence of Imran Farhat, Kamran Akmal and Ejaz Butt. Unlike Andy Dufresne you didn’t come out of the river of shit unscathed.

And Shoaib became a symbol for everything that was wrong: the self-centered, short-termist, plan-less attitude that the nation believed in – the idea that doing things on the whim was somehow a strategy for long-lasting success. How do you weight temporary happiness against continued contentment? The individual being greater than the collective; these four years were also spent reading and reading; about football, cricket and whatever else you could find. You read Lowe and Smyth, Hesse and Honigstein, Samiuddin and Stannard, Nicholson and Simmons, but more than anyone else you read Wilson – who showed you the world of numbers and logic, of divorcing fandom from analysis, of communist nations where luck and planning combined to produce something beautiful, of the dozens of coaches who believed in the power of the collective. It was the contrast provided – by Rijkaard’s Barcelona, by Spaletti’s Roma, by Wenger in the early years, by Wilson’s writings – the collective was not necessarily removed from the aesthetic. Being a diva above the collective could be allowed when the team was mediocre or the star was so much better than the rest (Riquelme); not when you weren’t even the best player in the XI. Not when you weren’t even always available to the team. The love for Shoaib was illogical, childish even. The flame kept flickering, but the intensity continued to lower. In the summer of 2010 you decided to finally act upon your frustration and decided to write yourself. The frustration came not from Shoaib or the team; but from the media, and particularly the moustachioed rainman who presented the only late night sports talk show. The man who you chose for your first cricket piece was the anti-Shoaib: unloved by the establishment or the masses blinded by the myths of talent and star power, the epitome of the “statistical cricketer”. Too weak, too ugly, too small, too egoless – Fawad Alam was a symbol, too.  He was the successor to the man who had replaced Shoaib in the one-sided love affair; Fawad was no Younis Khan, but he was as close as you could get.

You still felt for Shoaib. Even as he embarrassed himself against Harbhajan and showed that while he could still talk the talk, he could rarely walk the walk anymore. As Asif came back, Aamir emerged, you saw a hopeful future; a Shoaibless future. You wanted Shoaib gone, not because you no longer loved him, but because every single new memory seemed to clash with the nostalgic image that you had created. Shoaib was a rockstar who existed in the plane above, not a fat blob struggling to bowl his quota of overs and being slapped by tailenders. Then those final embers of hope were crushed by Murdoch’s army. And Shoaib had to stay, even in his decrepit balding state. You had seen a man worth dying for become like so many great sportsmen, hanging on for dear life, for that final dance in the spotlight. Much later you would read Brian Phillips talk about el Diego , how great sportsmen could never deal with being an irrelevance; reading that you would nod like a dog, thinking of Shoaib,

A few months later you joined twitter, just in time for the World Cup. You called for Shoaib to be replaced by Wahab – because it was better for the collective, because it was better for your memories of Shoaib. Others still hung onto the delusional feeling that there was still something left in an empty gas tank. They hated you, because you attacked their hero. You understood; and played along.

Then Shoaib retired. You remember being a little emotional listening to the audio of his final press conference. That was the last thing he did in cricket; that was the also the last thing he did that you liked. Every single day after his retirement, it seemed as if he was deliberately trying to chisel away the marble statue you had created of him in your head – or what little of it remained.  He wrote a book, you tried to read it thrice, you couldn’t – you realized why your “no autobiographies” rule existed. You would later talk to two senior journalists about that book; one said he read chapters of it, found it fanciful. The other outright called Shoaib a liar. You wanted to defend Shoaib, and hate these guys for attacking your hero; you no longer had the energy nor the feeling.

Now he sits on a TV channel, looking like Shaibi the Hutt, quickly replacing Shebby Singh as the pundit that has made you shake your head the most. In your weak moments, you go on youtube and just type Shoaib Akhtar, and see where the website takes you. It feels like stalking an ex’s Facebook profile. Shoaib is no longer your hero. He hasn’t been one for years.

About Hassan Cheema

The writer is a sports nerd, and does not believe that opinions other than his own are valid.