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Inspired talent lost with the hounding of Shoaib (from the Times UK)

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    Inspired talent lost with the hounding of Shoaib (from the Times UK)

    Inspired talent lost with the hounding of Shoaib

    by Simon Barnes
    The Times



    Sports Feature Writer of the Year
    THE GREAT sporting stars of the past year were Daylami and Shoaib Akhtar, with their different interpretations of speed, like a prey and a predator. One is a horse, the other a Pakistan fast bowler. One has been sent to stud, the other has been put out to grass.
    Both represented grace under pressure, the purest expression of speed, which is the purest thing in sport. Both showed an appreciation of the need to dominate their sport and each had an urgent, compelling need to do just that.

    Beyond this, each had a most extraordinary "watchability" about them, something that drew all eyes. Daylami had the grey coat and the relentless power, the compelling surge of the animal in flight that, for unfathomable reason, touches something deep in the nature of the humans who watch.

    Shoaib also compels: combative nature, elegantly petulant gestures, an inability to do anything without grace. He also has something that all Pakistan sides have, that sense of danger. When you watched Laurence Olivier in some of his madder performances, you half-expected him to climb into the audience and lay about them. Viv Richards, who had the same quality of danger, literally did such a thing.

    Shoaib has the same thrilling atmosphere about him. He was the star of the cricket World Cup last year and it became a question of when, rather than if, he would produce the first electronically timed 100mph ball. After all, he ran in at at least 100mph - the heels of his boots striking the seat of his trousers at every stride - so, surely, it was just a matter of letting go.

    Not only that, he made the best still pictures of the tournament, turning himself into a pentangle with his dramatic appealing, perfectly matching the five-pointed star on his uniform. He is a man who naturally falls into memorable shapes.

    All sports should cherish such people. Homely, pedestrian virtues can be celebrated, and rightly, but, above all, sport is about those who possess the inspiration that can strike like lightning from a clear sky and change the day into something precious.

    It is these stars, the impossible talents that bring us these moments of pure explosion, that keep us coming back to sport: Ryan Giggs's goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup last season was just such a confirming moment, that sudden reminder of why sport still has us in thrall when we have other far more useful and enjoyable things to do.

    But now, at a stroke, Shoaib has been taken away from us. His bowling action has been considered illegal by the International Cricket Council. A nine-man committee with a representative from each of the Test-playing countries thrashed the thing out in a teleconference, of all things. And we who watch have a terrible sense of being cheated. The Australians made a memorable mess of things in their obsession with the bowling action of Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lanka spinner. His public hounding represented nothing less than a witch-hunt and, since he has now been cleared, it looks like a pointless exercise in vindictiveness.

    There is a whiff of the same thing in Shoaib's case. He bowled swiftly and unforgettably in the last World Cup and no one criticised his action. He was a thing to be delighted in, the sort of thing we watch cricket, or any sport, in order to find. Now, he goes to Australia and this happens.

    Pakistan cricket is naturally in deep shock. They are, equally inevitably, playing the racism card as well, and perhaps not without reason. I cannot remember a single top-quality Pakistan cricketer of recent years who has not been called a cheat somewhere along the line. Wasim Akram, the Pakistan captain, has responded that of all the fast bowlers playing today, half would show a kink in the action if put under the same scrutiny. This is an important point and it boils down to this: why pick on Shoaib?

    However, by one of sport's traditional and excellent ironies, Australia's new fast-bowling sensation, Brett Lee, has had his action questioned by observers. That is one to keep an eye on.

    There is an Australian flavour to the hounding of Shoaib. He was in Australia when all this blew up, though his action was questioned not only by Darrell Hair, the Australian umpire who had earlier no-balled Muralitharan, but also by John Reid, the New Zealand match referee, and Peter Willey, the English umpire.

    But it leaves us with a predominant feeling of bewilderment and resentment. We are left with far more questions than answers. Is Wasim right about the actions of half of the world's fast bowlers? If so, why pick on Shoaib? Why do we have to wait until Shoaib goes to Australia?

    What is the Australian obsession with finding faults with Asian superstars? What are they going to do about Lee? Is the Shoaib decision a matter of pettifogging pedantry, or does the action give him a genuinely unfair advantage? Above all, is the whole thing to do with cricket or with resentment of Asian superstars?

    It seems very much that the losers in his decision are the spectators. We shall miss him and continue to wonder about the process that got rid of him.


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