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CONTROVERSIALLY INDEED!

By Sanjay Jha

If you happen to be a young and unknown Pakistani pace bowler who has just taken the wicket of Rahul Dravid, one of the world’s most accomplished batsmen, you can feel a 100,000 pairs of eyes boring into you while a deafening roar pours out of 100,000 throats as their hero , Sachin Tendulkar, walks in. But if you knock off his stumps with your very first delivery to him, your ears meet with a deafening and almost eerie silence .

The above paragraph is not my own written description of that spell-binding moment at Eden Gardens in 1999, but an extract from Shoaib Akhtar’s Chapter 1 itself from his just launched book appropriately titled Controversially Yours. He has evidently hit the hot buttons.

All those who saw Akhtar’s deathly demolition of two of India’s greatest ever know that it is the stuff of repeated YouTube viewing. You could literally hear the Pakistani players in exuberant chatter amidst unbridled  celebrations mid-field as the Calcutta crowd stunned beyond the pale of their contemplations fell into pin-drop silence.  Adds Akhtar “ I did it, I thought, I did it, as I pressed my forehead to the ground in gratitude”.

That to me , paradoxically enough, is actually Akhtar’s tribute to the greatness of Dravid and Tendulkar, his most heroic haul, given its august, apposite place in his book in the first page itself. Surely we cannot grudge him his extraordinary moment of destructive  bowling. His comment though about the match-winning capabilities of Dravid-Tendulkar, and the latter’s squeamishness when facing him have raised a hornet’s nest.

I was looking forward to a real exciting animated exchange at the Cricket Club of India on Sunday evening between the inimitable firecracker  Akhtar, the incendiary irrepressible fast-bowler, also called in cricket folklore as the Rawalpindi Express. The mercurial Akhtar has clearly raised a lot of dust on the tracks in India going by the dramatic last-minute cancellation of the event with leading political parties going fervently berserk to claim credit for “preventing the sullying of the image of the God of cricket”—Sachin Tendulkar. Frankly, it is grotesque and contemptible. The God, alas, added fuel to fire by apparently making a rather haughty, terse statement; “ It is beneath my dignity to respond to Shoaib’s book”.  That is exactly the kind of persuasive provocation the Shiv Sena and the NCP needed to get into their own slugfest to score brownie points.

As usual, we come across as petty, parochial and pedestrian. Akhtar is entitled to his opinions, no matter how outrageous or deliberately instigating. In this case, it was neither, just a plain-speaking competitor voicing his personal opinion.  Until the remarkable turnaround in the Chennai Test against England, Sachin was being roundly castigated even by his most ardent adulators as a one-trick pony, one who flattered to deceive, almost invariably failing in getting us to the finish mile. Dravid was comparatively a more reliable bulwark. Around the time of the great Indian resuscitation from 2008-2011 ( till the disastrous England tour), India virtually never set a foot wrong. That was also the time when Pakistan stood ostracized from world cricket, post its own internal disturbances and the terrorist attacks of 26/11, and perhaps never saw a resolute resurrected Tendulkar rediscover an insatiable appetite. To a great extent, that explains Akhtar’s wayward miscalculation on the match-winning abilities of Dravid and Tendulkar.

But in our bizarre bull-headedness , we should not miss in Controversially Yours what is obviously the archetypal tale of most Pakistani cricketers; the story of living in abject penury, frequently physically thrashed for inane reasons by disciplinarian family members, of getting drenched in rain when the roof of the house collapses and that headstrong dream to somehow make it. In case of Akhtar, the urge to also just keep running. There is an earthy sincerity somewhere, and the courage and modesty to acknowledge his fallibilities. And yet Akhtar has clocked the fastest delivery ever at 100.2 mph which he proudly parades on his broad sleeves.

I have so far read just the first two chapters, but like Andre Agassi’s OPEN, it makes for compelling reading, simply because unlike several others such as Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Asif etc for whom cricket is a tragic tale of lost dreams and unfulfilled potential  , Akhtar survived the internecine politics of a checkered Pakistan cricket administration and the dark world of match-fixing. Besides, some embarrassing nocturnal scandals.

“Controversies have hovered around me since the day I was born. Take my name for instance. In Arabic, it means the one who brings people together, but it can also mean the one who separates”.  I will recommend , dear reader, that we go with the former interpretation.

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