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The Rediff Cricket Special/Faisal Shariff
March 23, 2004
We are at the Attock Refinery in Rawalpindi on our way to Dhok Nawaz village in Murga.
Now why would one want drive 20 kilometres out of Islamabad to be in Pindi on the morning of a day-night encounter between India and Pakistan? Obviously, because Murga's most celebrated son Shoaib Akhtar is about to play his 100th One-Day International on home turf.
We drive past the refinery with an escort into the wiry road, past the two-room quarters where Akhtar's father, a plant operator, once lived with his family. For a moment I thought the place was a poultry farm, what with the number of chickens that inhabit the area. Probably, that explains the name of the place.
We roll on the final road to Akhtar's mansion, a gray-marble structure with huge, white carved pillars, giving the impression of a pompous setting.
It has been a long journey for the man dubbed the Rawalpindi Express in world cricket; the man who broke the 100-mile per hour barrier.
From an inconspicuous quarter in the village to a mansion that overlooks the entire village today, Akhtar's has been another clichéd rags to riches story, but not without its own unique script, titanic battles and lofty dreams.
Dreams of claiming 300 wickets in both forms of the game (he has a combined total of 278 wickets in a seven-year career marred by injuries); battles against charges of an illegitimate bowling action and ball tampering.
As we stand outside the gate of the Akhtar mansion, children from the area peep through their terraces, tinted windows and shut doors. A knock on one door reveals that the Akhtars don't mix around too much whenever they stay here. Akhtar has bought another mansion in Islamabad's posh locales, but this one is special.
There is no one from the Akhtar clan at home; just some distant relatives refusing to divulge details or willing to open the door. But they do open it only to slam it back on my face.
Just as I turn around to leave dejected, Shoaib's elder brother Obaid Akhtar drives in, gets off the car and flashes a smile that reveals a broken front tooth.
If your brother is the world's fastest bowler and you have a rearranged set of frontal teeth, chances are you've dared to take him on.
Recalls Obaid: "When Shoaib was six and I was ten we were playing with the cork ball outside the house. Shoaib decided to fire in a beamer that broke my front teeth. I was bleeding and when I complained to my mother, Shoaib turned around and said, 'These things happen when you play, relax'."
Obaid said everyone in the house was alarmed by his attitude at that age.
"Shoaib has always excelled at whatever he did. He could never lose or be second. He was excellent at hockey, soccer and cricket. We used to play with the light tape ball when we were kids and the street kids were scared of facing Shoaib. His body structure was such that he always wanted to bowl fast.
"Even though he was always a superb bowler he was also a very destructive batsman. Once during a club game we were about to lose a game, needing 123 to win in eight overs. We sent Shoaib up the order and he finished the match in seven overs with the longest sixes I have ever seen anyone hit. We asked him how he could hit the ball so hard and he said, 'Aap logo ne kabhi chance nahi diya [You guys never gave me a chance]' ."
Obaid, a marketing officer with Pakistan Oil Fields, revealed that Shoaib is a gentleman at home, who loves to play with kids and listen to music all day.
"Woh akkhad mijaaz ka nahi hai. Wo to field par ho jata hai jab koi 35 yards bhag kar aata hai aur fir us gend par chauka padta hai to gussa to hona hi hai [He is not arrogant; but when he runs in from a 35-yard run-up and then gets hit for four, of course he'll get angry]," says Obaid.
With Shoaib, speed is a way of life.
"He is crazy about bikes. Bahut tez chalata hai [he rides very fast]. We keep warning him but he just refuses to listen to us."
With a brand new five blade Honda bike, Akhtar has been burning the Islamabad highway.
"We have advised him to sell of the four bikes he has but he is mad about them. He is the son of speed," says Obaid.
Obaid recounts the time when Akhtar was banned from the game for his suspect action.
"Shoaib was not too depressed. He just kept telling us that he would get back because his conscience was clear. He went to Australia, got tests done and then returned to international cricket with a bang. That is Shoaib for you. You just can't keep him out."