Shoaib Akhtar will retire from the international game at the end of Pakistan’s World Cup, bringing to a close one of cricket’s most compelling and mercurial careers. Privately, over the last few months, Shoaib had been looking at the World Cup as a final hurrah for a body increasingly unable to cope with the rigours of the international game.
On Wednesday evening, at a Pakistan High Commission function in Colombo, he told a handful of reporters, including ESPNcricinfo, that he would make the announcement on Thursday. After Pakistan’s training session at the Premadasa, Shoaib arrived in jacket and trousers and told the press of a decision he had made, fittingly for him perhaps, in a hospital bed after yet another knee surgery two years ago.
“Today I step ahead for the most significant phase of my life and walk off,” he read out from a prepared statement. “I have decided to say goodbye. This World Cup is my last and the coming matches in the tournament would be the last few of my international career. Mentally I wanted to continue perhaps forever. But I must make way for youngsters to take over.”
He said he had discussed the matter with the team management during the tour to New Zealand earlier this year, but decided to go ahead with it only now, dousing speculation that he might have been pushed into it. His Pakistan team-mates were told of the decision at the Premadasa on Thursday morning during an emotional gathering in the dressing room, where he delivered a farewell speech and was embraced by fellow players and support staff.
“There was sadness there,” Shoaib said of the occasion, before joking that a retirement on his own terms was unique enough to shock them. “The whole team knew this was going to happen but they didn’t want to believe this was going to happen because they played with me long enough. They were very sad about it but at the same time happy for me, for my next few matches, whatever is left in me. It might seem a little awkward to them as this is the first time in Pakistan that someone is leaving cricket on this note. Felt a little awkward. So, I would say they were a little shocked.”
The tournament itself has been a mixed one for him. Whether or not he gets another chance to script a different ending, which currently has him being hit for 28 runs in his last over by Ross Taylor, including the last ball for six, is likely to be the subject of much speculation ahead of Saturday’s game against Australia. He was outstanding through ten overs in Pakistan’s win over Sri Lanka, but his fitness and energy, particularly during later spells, has concerned the Pakistan team set-up.
As if released, he fairly sprinted in to bowl in the nets, running in faster and bowling – to the naked eye at least – quicker than he has been. He believes he could’ve played on for another year or two, but for the moment, he said, he will do everything he can for his side in the World Cup.
“I am available for every match and working really hard and bowling as quick. My pace is still there, I am not slowing down. My pace is up there. Playing is up to the management. I am going to double my efforts. Any possible way I can help Pakistan, and with every ounce of blood that is left in my body, I will serve my country. I play or if I don’t play I don’t know, but I’m working hard, I’m training hard. I had a great session today. I’m focusing on the match against Australia. If I don’t play I will make sure every guy gets my help and if nothing else then I will carry water onto the field.”
A myriad of off-field run-ins with the establishment and players – he smiled mischievously when thanking “my dear PCB” – and an endless list of injuries heavily curtailed his career, impact and legacy. He played in only 46 of the 84 Tests Pakistan played since his debut in November 1997 and 163 ODIs – a relatively small number for a subcontinent player – in over 13 years. This tournament has been typical. Questions over his fitness have been ever-present and he has been fined by the team management for several breaches of curfew, as well as for a spat with Kamran Akmal during and after the New Zealand loss. Yet, Shoaib insisted, he would not have done it differently.
“Whenever I had a chance, even with niggles and during the pain and the most horrifying days of the pain, I still never said no to Pakistan,” he said. “I always made myself available. There are no regrets. You always knew me as not the fittest man or bowler. I always played in pain. I always played half-unfit. So the fitness issue has always been there, still there.
“This was written in my life and it had to happen. It’s part of the process that you grow up and go through such times and you grow out of it. You become 35 and you get mature. We come from a very humble background. We always learn that cricket is our institution and we learn swimming, driving, anything you name it we learn from there. So obviously you’ve got to give us a bit of a chance, a span of 10-15 years to learn. There are no moments I regret.”
Even in this interrupted, half-full career, there were enough Shoaib moments for his time of passing to be a genuinely sad one. The two balls to silence Eden Gardens were, understandably given his thirst for big-name scalps, among his own highlights. The 100mph ball in the 2003 World Cup was another but the most memorable was a simpler one, a surprising one perhaps, of the moment he first wore the Pakistan Test kit.
“The first day, when I got announced for Pakistan, I did not believe that someone like me could play for this greatest team ever,” he said, unable to suppress a smile. “And there were my idols like Wasim and Waqar, and Imran was there to support us every now and again … Inzamam, everyone, every senior player I used to see on TV. I always dreamed of playing with them. The best moment was when I got the first kit for my first Test and I had a huge star on my chest. I wore that kit and I slept in it and I couldn’t believe I would wake up in it. I did not take it off for three days.”
Towards the end, there was the distinct possibility of tears – “do you want me to cry?” he asked when translating his thoughts into Urdu – but he held them back. “Playing for Pakistan was a dream. Yes, it was a dream,” he said and then walked off, to hugs and handshakes all around.