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As Pakistan all-rounder Shoaib Malik, born on February 1, 1982, waltzed through batting line-ups while playing for Pakistan A against County teams during their tour of England in 1997 with his brand of off-spin bowling, there was an inkling that he could follow in Saqlain Mushtaq’s footsteps, as he had a doosra in his repertoire. Yet, as pages in his career ticked by, it was his batting and fielding that won him more appreciation and respect. Bharath Ramaraj looks back at the glittering highlights of his career…
If we jog our memory back to 1999-00 season, a young and wiry 17-year old off-spinner in Shoaib Malik with an action that seemed to be a carbon copy of Saqlain Mushtaq sizzled by troubling Sri Lankan and leaden footed West Indian batsmen in Coca Cola Cup One-Day International (ODI) tri-series held in the searing heat of Sharjah. In that tournament, he was exploring every crevice in a batsman’s defence more with his mystery delivery doosra than going through the traditional route of beating a bewildered batsman in the air with flight, guile and cunningness.
Those days, no one could have envisaged him from being a promising off-spinner turning into a decent ODI batsman, who at his very best had an uncanny ability to find the minutest of gaps in the field with precision and loft the ball over the infield, when the situation demanded. In fact, it took him about a mere three years in the international arena to chart his way to success as an ODI batsman.
In 2001-02, when Pakistan embarked on a tour to UAE to play the West Indies, Malik’s moment in the sun finally arrived. Up against a rather ragged West Indies line-up in the first ODI at Sharjah, he proved to be the telling difference between the two sides on a sluggish track that aided spin and reverse-swing by notching up a fine century. Riding on his excellent form in that series against the West Indies, he compiled another enterprising hundred against New Zealand in Pakistan that season. The writer also fondly rekindles memories of his excellent knock of 82 not out at Lahore against a mighty fine seam attack of South Africa. The lustre of his stroke-play glowed brightly during that innings from Malik.
Unfortunately from Malik’s perspective, because of haphazard selection policies, he was left high and dry in the world of wilderness and was not picked for the ICC World Cup 2003 held in South Africa. But Malik showed single-minded focus and an inner spark to essay a comeback and even score tons of runs in the Asia Cup in 2004. It has to be said though; one of his hundreds came against lightweights, Hong Kong. Even then, he found himself in the midst of having to go through a crisis, as he was reported for suspect action.
Despite being reported for suspect action and losing whatever little confidence he had in his bowling, Malik didn’t cave in despite a wallow of depression. In fact, he continued to steer Pakistan to fine totals in the abridged version of the game with the willow. He even amassed a hundred against arch-rivals India at Lahore in 2006. However, Malik would have had bitter-sweet memories of that century against India as Pakistan went onto lose the game.
In 2007, Malik took over the mantle of captaining the side from the veteran Inzamam-ul-Haq who had by then walked into retirement life. Under him, Pakistan reached the final of the 2007 ICC World T20 final, but lost to arch-rivals India in a thrilling match. Pakistan had done reasonably well under his captaincy early on, but his tenure was dogged by controversies. He captained the ODI side in 36 games and won 24 of those matches. In Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is), the mettlesome cricketer led the team in 17 games, taking the side past the finishing line on 12 times. In Tests, Malik led the side in a mere three matches. However, he couldn’t take the side to victory, as they lost two out of the three Tests and drew the other one.
By 2009, Malik had relinquished the role of captaining the side but controversies continued to haunt him. He was reported to have led a coup against the then Pakistan captain Younis Khan in an attempt to replace him with mercurial all-rounder Shahid Afridi.
Later, Malik clarified to Times of India about the issue by saying, “Yes, I did meet with the board chairman but I never suggested to him to replace Younis Khan nor supported the appointment of Shahid Afridi. That is not my job and you don’t change captains on minor issues. If we have any problems I can talk to Younis myself.”
“They are minor issues but we solve them and we support each other. I know all the players back the captain as well. They are absolutely no groupings in the team. We are a like a unit,” he stated.
Malik continued by saying he was relieved that he wasn’t captaining the side anymore.
“I am very much relieved these days. I don’t want to be captain again. When I had this responsibility there was lot of tension for me and my family as well. So I am just happy now to perform as a senior player and give my input to the captain and management when asked by them. I am definitely more relaxed now.”
However, his batting glittered in gold during the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa in 2009. In the game at Centurion, it was his century that took Pakistan to a monumental win over India. On a track that was a belter for batting, Malik inched his way to his century slowly but steadily. The Indian bowlers didn’t help themselves by bowling wayward stuff, but the credit has to go to Malik for engineering a fine Pakistan win.
Yet, all the blood, sweat, tears and toil couldn’t prevent him from being a victim of Pakistan’s revolving-door policy. The truth of the matter is that he has been in and out of the squad ever since he made his debut. Even last year in the ICC Champions Trophy held in England, Malik played one of the matches for Pakistan against India, before finding himself on the reserve bench for the umpteenth time.
In Tests too, it has been a similar story for Malik. When he made a century against Sri Lanka at Colombo (SSC) in 2006, it had seemed to be a breakthrough knock for him. His resolute defence, twinned with a reservoir of willpower against a Sri Lankan attack led by the wily off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan soothed the jangling nerves of Pakistan dressing room, as he took them to safe waters on the final day. But from time-to-time, his technique has let him down on tracks that moved around zigzag. Ironically, his only other Test century came against Sri Lanka at the same ground in 2009 and what more, by batting with a touch of calmness and tranquillity; he was in the thick of things in helping out Pakistan to eschew another draw from the jaws of defeat.
Here is a cricketer who has sparkled briefly in all facets of the game including being a symbol of a brilliant fielder in a side not known for their athleticism. He has opened the batting for Pakistan even in Tests and is one of the only three Pakistani players to have completed the double of taking over 100 wickets and accrued over 5,000 ODI runs. Of course, he even went onto captain the side too for a brief period.
Malik has been in the news over the years for wrong reasons too. In 2005, he was given a one-Test ban after he had “deliberately conspired to under-perform” in a Twenty20 domestic match between Sialkot Stallions and Karachi Zebras. He also hit the headlines for marrying India’s glittering tennis star, Sania Mirza. Interestingly, Malik’s wife Mirza is related to Asif Iqbal and Ghulam Ahmed, both Test captains. Even Adeel Malik, Shoaib’s younger brother has played First-Class cricket for Sialkot.
As he walks into the sunset of his career, Shoaib Malik may look back at it wondering whether he could have done better. However, to represent your country across all formats in any sport in itself is an achievement he can be proud of. Most of us can only have fabled dreams of getting such a golden opportunity.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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