One of Shoaib Akhtar’s great strengths was his ability to take the pitch out of the equation. There was an arrogance to it. It didn’t matter if he was on a springboard in Perth or here, at the Gaddafi Stadium; he could bump you on a swamp or crush your toes from 44 yards.
This tour was not so much a turning point for Akhtar as temporary reaffirmation of his devastating quality. The previous two years had been riddled with controversy – doubts over his intentions, honesty and action had turned the Rawalpindi Express into a circus attraction rather than a respected world-class performer. After getting through a pre-series training camp unscathed, he returned 11 wickets in the first two Tests against England at Multan and Faisalabad, leading the attack with just as much intensity as he ever did.
But it was only here, in England’s second innings, that we got a glimpse of what he had up those billowing sleeves. Slower balls – glorious, glorious slower balls.
England captain Michael Vaughan was the first to be flummoxed; bat jamming down on what, in his head, was a searing yorker that would shatter bone. He was so early on it, his bat had followed through past the expected point of impact – bottom hand coming off the bat, which in turn popped the ball back to Akhtar at the end of his follow-through.
The second – the best – was enhanced by the situation. A third-wicket partnership of 175 between Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood had dug England some way out of a hole, before Collingwood departed in the 66th over. By the start of the 69th, the tourists were a further two wickets down – Danish Kaneria doing for Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff in successive balls, while Bell had watched the carnage unfold, on 92, from the other end: comfortable, set and now with reason to resort to the holding role he adopted when he came to the crease at 30-2.
In came Akhtar, down went the ball; starting on leg stump before arcing away from Bell, squaring him up to beat the bat and kiss his back pad. Sorcery of the highest order.
Then there was Liam Plunkett, almost motionless through fear, as Akhtar dished up another, fulsome and floaty, a full toss that he wore on his back leg.
It was Akhtar’s fifth and a hat-trick of fooled dismissals. It was Shoaib Akhtar, but not as we knew him – devastating yet delicate.
First published in November 2013