No.5 in Wisden’s Test spells of the 2000s is a display of timber-splattering brilliance from Pakistan’s mercurial Shoaib Akhtar. Part of Wisden’s 2000s in Review series.
Shoaib Akhtar 6-11
Pakistan v New Zealand, 1st Test
Gadaffi Stadium, Lahore
May 1-3, 2002
Five stump-honing yorkers, all at or above 95mph, and then a length ball that was still far too good for Chris Martin. You might want more words than that, but really that’s enough to capture the unpreventable devastation Shoaib Akhtar caused against New Zealand, razing the Blackcaps for 73 on a Lahore pitch flat enough for Inzamam to make a triple – and Imran Nazir a Test hundred. Ankle trouble kept him from bowling in the second innings.
And that just about sums Shoaib up. His best was so good, so devastatingly simple, and so unlike almost any bowler there’s been before or since – in the ODIs that preceded the Test series, he became the first bowler to breach the 100mph barrier, and still holds the record for cricket’s fastest delivery. But despite the formidable record he did put up across formats – one good enough to secure a place in Wisden’s Test team of the 2000s – his career is still one of cricket’s great ‘What ifs?’ What if there hadn’t been the disciplinary issues, the injuries, the off-field melodrama that detracted from the on-field magnificence?
With some players, you wonder if the pitfalls and the potency go hand in hand, that the attitude that makes them so irresistible on the field is what makes them susceptible to indiscretions off it. And while there’s a hint of that with Shoaib, the raw materials – the inimitable action, the pure pace – are so compelling, that it felt all you should need to do was get him on the park, tell him to bowl at the stumps, and soon enough the rewards would come.
This then was a certifiably great spell from an arguably great bowler. For everything that Shoaib wasn’t, what he was was still extraordinary.