Shoaib Akhtar is 40 years old. Wait a minute, that came out sounding wrong. Not Shoaib Akhtar? Not the big four-oh?
It is among the many paradoxes of one of cricket’s most remarkable bowlers that you can’t think of him without images of a creaky body and an approach to fitness that could be charitably described as ‘flexible’ - and yet you cannot imagine him doing so mundane a thing as leaving the 30s behind.
For Indians, Akhtar singed himself into national consciousness at the Eden Gardens in 1999, and that fresh-faced bowler of thunderbolts is what the mind’s eye conjures.
How do you analyse a phenomenon like Akhtar?
You could simply say, ‘right-arm fast blur’. You could look at the numbers: 178 wickets at 25.70 and a strike-rate of 45.75 but only 46 Tests in more than a decade. You could go by the public persona of a brash, in-your-face cricketer, a tabloid headline writer’s dream. Or by the person described in his autobiography - ironically titled Controversially Yours - as a man more sinned against than sinning.
You could meet the man and get a sense of the complexities, the contradictions. The outspoken and bizarre mixed with the earnest. And feel a mite of what international batsmen did when Akhtar turned around at the top of his mark and began the dramatic run-up that told you the game was full of possibilities.
The Test career began in 1997, the ODI journey in 1998, but the genesis of the Akhtar story began with those two deliveries in 1999. You know which ones. They don’t need detailing, because everyone knows.
Even now, a decade and half after getting Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar out off successive balls, there’s a glint in Akhtar’s eye when he recalls that day.
“I follow my instinct always, but you should be aware of what the batsman is going to do. And I knew that Sachin would offer me a shot," he tells Wisden India. “Thank you very much, he offered me a gap, and I got through it. I knew I would have to beat him not just with pace but with swing too.
“But yes, Sachin made me a star! So I’m thankful to him. He’s a great batsman, without a doubt. He can play better than anyone else. When he got going, he was a nightmare. But the biggest nightmare I ever faced was Rahul Dravid. He used to bore me. He was the first batsman who could intimidate me, in terms of when he walked in, I knew I would have to field for at least two sessions more. The only guy who could stop him was Wasim (Akram), I had no ability to do that. I think in Test matches he was the toughest I bowled to. Sachin was a brutal force. When he got going, he made sure he scored runs. But Dravid killed you mentally. And physically he tired you. He was like Muhammad Ali, he would tire you out and then knock you down."
Since retirement and the autobiography that ruffled several feathers, Akhtar has seemingly mellowed. “See when your heart is pumping at 180-plus, what do you expect fast bowlers to be? Gentle?" he snorts. “I mean you can’t. Even a normal man doesn’t react normally when his heart is beating at 175, so how do you expect a fast bowler to react normally?"
His book railed against aspects of the cut-throat environment in the Pakistan dressing room and the lack of guidance, so, naturally, I ask him if he should have been given a shot at captaincy to provide the leadership he says was absent.
“I was born unfit. Flat feet, abnormal body, double-jointed, hyper-mobility," he rolls his eyes. “So I was literally on crutches on 1996 because both my knees were gone and they had given me only three years to play. It was through sheer will, my mind and my hard work that I still played. I thought I was only going to play 25 Test matches."
Right, but then - given his grievances against the lack of guidance early in his career - how would Shoaib Akhtar captain Shoaib Akhtar?
“It’s not rocket science yaar," he says. “Look what happened to (Mohammad) Amir at 19 years old. When you are 18-19, you are just a force with no inner strength. You’ve got to have a father figure in the dressing room, which we were lacking."
So if he travelled back in time to meet his 19-year-old self, would he counsel caution? “No no. You should be expressive and honest."
But, you know, people in authority haven’t always liked that … “You don’t like to be truthful?" he cuts in. “See what happens if you don’t want to stand up and speak out, where is Pakistan cricket now. Losing against Bangladesh. No disrespect to them, they played fabulously. But this is what happens when you don’t speak up or are not brave enough."
Which is all good and fine, but surely he feels that his brashness cost him some opportunities? “Opportunity is given by god. Not by the people. I’m not saying you take on the authorities needlessly, but at least tell them what is right and what is wrong. Be a man, don’t be a hypocrite."
Alright, so I was probably wrong about the ‘mellowed down’ bit.
ou get the sense that Akhtar is, or was, a man with as much thunder inside as outside. The spats with teammates and the potshots in the book are a thing of the past though, he insists.
“Those things are gone now. Let’s talk about the future brother. I don’t want to look at the past," he waves off questions on some of the comments his tome had about Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis in particular. “I’m friends with everyone in the Pakistan team, I never had a problem. I hated nets. But I was the best net bowler in Pakistan’s cricket history. I made sure I gave the batsmen good practice.
“People might have been insecure about me, but that was their problem and I understand that. Because I moved up so fast, but everyone is only human."
Indeed, in the recent past, whenever Akhtar has spoken of Akram and Younis, it has been only complimentary, and to be fair to him, he never hid his appreciation of the talent the two had. “I have never seen more beautiful dismissals in my life than what I saw Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis do. It was the first time I got to know that you can hit batsmen on the toes, and not just on the head. You can say I did a mix of both - nose and toes," he guffaws. But typically, he does spell out issues that hint obliquely at the men who were seniors when he was making his way into the Pakistan team.
“There are 70-80-year-olds sitting there and running the show. Since I’ve opened my eyes I’m seeing the same guys in the board and they are still there. Why does Pakistan cricket suffer? Because of the people running the show. They are not good enough. If we had a second Imran Khan, we would have been world beaters. This was a guy who was selfless and he was a leader. Simply put, we never had a leader in my generation. And we’re still searching for one.
“I wish we had an honest leader, so that Razzak, Saqlain, Shahid, Azhar, me - all of them could have become the best cricketers they could be."
And yet, Pakistan teams have found ways to win. “Water will always find its way," Akhtar gets philosophical. “Around the deepest and hardest rocks. But if you remove the rocks it can flow easier … That’s where the system’s problem is and where you need the right labour force to remove the rocks."
When asked if the lack of international cricket could be one of those rocks that the administration has not put in Pakistan cricket’s path, the response is swift. “Okay, there are no matches, but can’t you correct your own house, and put it in order? I mean if South Africa can survive for 30 years, why can’t you survive?"
When it’s further pointed out that just like it will be difficult to find another Don Bradman or Garry Sobers, it’s unreasonable to expect another Imran Khan to pop up, Akhtar counters with, “What about people who have lived with him, played with him? I understand that you won’t get another Imran Khan, he is one in a million, but what happened to learning from him? What about being selfless? You are not born brave, but you need to learn these qualities."
Akhtar is full of ideas on how to improve the administration in Pakistan - some straightforward, some idealistic, some unusual. In parallel, he’s got an eye on setting up a fast-bowling academy in India, with which he aims to “change the entire attitude to fast bowling" in the country.
Given his frequent criticisms of the Pakistan administration, has he ever considered cleaning the system from within? “Look, whenever they want, I’ll do it voluntarily. I don’t need money to fix my country. I’ll make a living through some sources, but if they ever ask me, I would, without a question."
That means he hasn’t been asked so far? “Why am I sitting in India if they had asked me?"
Ask him to speak on his bowling though, and the frown is replaced by a smile. “I did get a thrill when I was bowling at my peak. I was enjoying it, that’s why I was doing it. And then when I saw my countrymen smiling, that I’ve managed to make them smile, that is the most rewarding thing ever."
When asked if he misses bowling, there’s a hint of a grimace. “No. My knee hurts the minute I see the ground." But prod him further, and he admits that if his academy comes about and he sees a youngster batting, “I’ll get my spikes on if I see some exciting talent that really motivates me. I’ll bowl a few deliveries. I still have about 140 kph left in me."
Some would say, he had a lot more cricket left in him too. But Akhtar isn’t one for wallowing in what could have been.
“What regrets? Nothing," he says emphatically. “I’m a person who looks forward, what is gone is gone. I cannot live in the past because you cannot get better if you are stuck in the past. I’ve seen people still standing in the past thinking they were stars once. But seriously, move on."
So how in the world do you analyse Shoaib Akhtar? You don’t. He might have bowled faster than anyone else, but in some ways, we’re yet to move on.