The World Cup winner played alongside the Rawalpindi Express early in his career for Durham, but he made clear that there was to be no lingering friendship when the Englishman came out to bat.
“Frightening stuff,” Plunkett said of watching Shoaib bowl. “In county cricket, I was first-change to Shoaib and Harmy. I was at slip for Harmy and leg-slip for Shoaib. I faced Shoaib Akhtar in my first ever Test match. Because I played with Durham before that, I was marking my run up before the Test and he just smiled and said ‘I’m gonna kill you’ and laughed.”
Plunkett faced a nervous wait before going into bat, and walked in with England struggling at 249-7. “I remember it like it was yesterday because I had my bat, at that time – you think [now] these bats are so thick and stuff – but it was Kashmir willow, it was real thin,” he said. “And I was sat ready to bat, I was next in, and the TV screen’s right there, so you can see it’s like 96, 97, 96 [miles per hour]. Ashley Giles’ stumps get taken out, and I walk out to a guy who’s bowling 90 mile an hour.”
After a century stand for the first wicket, Plunkett’s Durham teammate Paul Collingwood was playing something of a lone hand, and would be dismissed four short of his century. However, he wasn’t able to offer much in the way of comfort. “I don’t know how much Colly was on, but he was batting nicely, and often in county cricket when you go out there, ‘Is he bowling quick?’ and generally it’s ‘Oh yeah but it’s skiddy and that but you’re alright’, and Colly was like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s fuckin’ rapid mate’.”
Plunkett’s effort was a dogged one, the tail-ender eventually falling for 9 off 51 balls, and though it was Mohammad Sami, not Shoaib, who took his wicket, the speedster did land one during the innings.
“I remember the first one, it looked like I played it well,” he said. “You duck and you turn and you can see it travel to the keeper and the keeper catches it. I got my first medal of honour, he hit me on the shoulder. I pretty much shit my pants at that point.
“He’s just such a big solid bloke, he’s got massive tree trunk legs, and he just steams in, and you’re like, ‘every ball’s got serious intent here’. I think I was like nine off 60 balls, but I managed to do a decent job. My first Test, that was a serious challenge, and batting at No.9, to be able to put up a partnership, get seven or eight but face 60 balls, I was pretty happy with it.”