His overall figures in all formats of the game are impressive. However as he rides off into the sunset there is the distinct feeling that Shoaib Akhtar could have achieved much more. But then a strange mixture of run-ins with the establishment, former players as well as his teammates allied to an endless list of injuries made his a start and stop career. 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.
As a personality and a cricketing character however Akhtar remains almost unsurpassable. Yet as Akhtar insisted at the press conference called to announce his retirement from the international game he would not have done things any differently. No regrets whatsoever he insisted. He once said famously "I am not an angel. I have my good days and bad days. I am still learning day by day." Yes sometime in the future one can almost hear Akhtar singing a la Frank Sinatra "I did it my way."
But Akhtar insisted that even with niggles and pain - "even the most horrifying days of pain" – he always made himself available for Pakistan. "I played in pain, I played when half fit but I never said no to Pakistan," he said. Controversial cricketer maybe but no one could question his fierce competitiveness.
Akhtar always had a knack for being in the news – for the right and wrong reasons. An unbridled passion to hurl the ball down at great pace was his hallmark. Till the end he remained one of the game's most colourful personalities. But he was also no stranger to controversy. His lifestyle in the fast lane, his casual attitude towards training, his repeated injuries, his frequent flouting of discipline, of being on the wrong side of umpires and match referees and his annoying just about everyone from coaches to administrators, from teammates to former players. Oh yes, there was never a dull moment when Akhtar was around. The Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde persona of the world's fastest bowler called for a deep analysis.
But there is little doubt that as long as he concentrated on his bowling Akhtar was a pure joy to behold. There is no better sight in cricket than a fast bowler in full cry and Akhtar was not just another fast bowler. On sheer speed he was among the fastest bowlers of all time and when on song he could be as destructive as the greatest of them. We in India have disturbing memories of one spell at Kolkata in February 1999 when he bowled Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar with consecutive late swinging yorkers. There could be no real recovery after that, Pakistan went on to win the Asian Test Championship match and Akhtar lived up to his reputation of a match winner with an eight-wicket haul. Three years later came another vintage Akhtar spell, the hapless victims this time being the Kiwis at Lahore. Akhtar in the course of his best ever figures of six for 11 shot out New Zealand virtually on his own for 73. In a typical bravura performance he bowled five of the batsmen and had the sixth leg before. There were remarkable performances against Australia too but then his stand-out shows were not just confined to Tests. He was a match winner in ODIs too most memorably in the series clinching win over Australia in 2002 and in the World Cup semifinal against New Zealand three years before when he bowled each of his victims – Nathan Astle, Stephen Fleming and Chris Harris – prompting his captain Wasim Akram to proudly declare that "Akhtar showed that pace does matter in one day cricket." Incidentally his strike rate in Tests is the fourth highest of all time among those with more than 150 wickets.
Akhtar announced himself to the cricketing world in a big way during the 1999 World Cup. He made it clear that his obsession was to bowl at 100 miles per hour. He achieved that objective in the 2003 World Cup sending down a delivery to Nick Knight timed at 100.2 mph. That apart he did put in sterling performances over the years but these were too few and far between and overall his final tally of wickets is not in keeping with the natural talent or the sky high reputation he enjoyed. The pity is that he had the opportunities to add substantially to the tally and be a match winner on many more occasions and in the final analysis it must be said that Akhtar was a supreme talent who allowed himself to go astray and did not fulfill expectations. For all the glorious moments his case will be one of the most tragic in the game's history for there will always be the nagging feeling that he could have achieved much more.