Shoaib Akhtar steamed in and picked up an early wicket, but couldn't inspire Pakistan to defend a meagre total
© Getty Images

Talking Cricket

'You have to be mad to be a fast bowler'

Who would know better than the maddest, baddest, fastest one of them all, Shoaib Akhtar

Interview by Sidharth Monga  |  

Pretty early into this interview, talking about something else, Shoaib Akhtar said, "I'm a man of my word. I told you we'll meet at six, see, I'm here at [looks at the watch, which shows 7pm, and disregards it], erm, six." I didn't disagree. He was talking beautifully about fast bowling, which I didn't want to interrupt.

If his boast about being a man of his word was Shoaib being Shoaib, Shoaib had been Shoaib about ten minutes previously. Yes, he was late, but he had just driven from London to Birmingham, with Mohammad Yousuf by his side. I told him he could take his time to freshen up. We could even meet some other day. But Shoaib insisted otherwise. Good job I sat down with him in the bar of his hotel. From the moment he started to talk about the joys of bowling fast - what it is about fast bowling that makes fast bowlers go through so much pain, make so many sacrifices - thoughts and ideas began to flow thick and fast.

You can struggle to keep pace with Shoaib's mind, but if you slow him down and get him to expand on his thoughts, what seems on the surface a wild, boastful headline statement becomes simple and enriching. And it doesn't stop Shoaib from being Shoaib.

Why did you want to become a fast bowler?
I wanted to copy someone. Waqar. Imran. Wasim. That's what you call inspiration. Then it became my passion. Then it became my madness. Then in that madness I found the method to become the fastest. Then in that method I found another method of being the smartest. Then I found another method where I was the most unfit fast bowler. I realised whatever time I have, I am not going to slow down. I am going to bowl as quick as possible. I used to find ways to increase my passion and my madness to bowl fast.

I used to bowl in the galli-mohallas [streets and neighbourhoods], copying Waqar's action [demonstrates running in with his little finger on the left hand hidden; Waqar Younis' little finger was amputated].

Inspiration is important. Talent always follows heroes. Inspiration drives you forward, and then it becomes madness, and then you find a method in that madness. I found that method, which is to bowl quick every day. And knowing fully well that you are going to get unfit, and that you have only five to six years in your knees and you want to bowl fast as long as you can bowl. The method to bowling quick is to enjoy it. The roar of the crowd always used to drive me nuts. Whether it was a boo or a roar to cheer me up, that crowd inspired me most of the time to bowl quick. I used to find a reason to bowl quick. "I am feeling good today, I am in a good mood today, I am going to bowl quick."

"Inspiration is important. Talent always follows heroes. Inspiration drives you forward, and then it becomes madness, and then you find a method in that madness"

How difficult is it to bowl fast?
I used to crawl to my bathroom every day of my career. I used to limp out of my bed. I can't remember a day I didn't have pain in my knees for the last 18 years.

What is the joy of fast bowling that makes you go through this?
The big star on your chest. The Pakistan star. It was the biggest motivation for me. [When I was selected] I slept in the kit, in the Pakistan colours, for three nights. I didn't want to take it off. I felt so comfortable and so cosy, I just wanted to be in that kit for the rest of my life. Minor things that made me feel happy were the little smiles on people's faces when they saw me.

Most of the times you are entertaining yourself. Being a fast bowler is the best thing in cricket. You are running in, the crowd is behind you and you enjoy it. The heart pumps more blood and you take in more oxygen. Half the time I was entertaining myself. Because I was loving myself out there because of who I was. I enjoyed a lot. When the opposition is strong, or in front of a full house, you are charged twice as much. I would be most charged up against Australia. Gilly [Adam Gilchrist] at No. 7, and you are tired, and he lashes at you. He could be beaten by the same delivery and hit a similar delivery. The best idea was to get him out early. The best idea was to bowl round the stumps and reverse it into him. Otherwise he could hit almost everything else.

"The method to bowling quick is to enjoy it. The roar of the crowd always used to drive me nuts" © PA Photos

For a fast bowler what is the ultimate joy?
To be able to run in without pain. With rhythm like a smooth river. There have been only a few days in my life when I felt like that. And I just wanted to bowl and bowl and bowl all day.

And then stumps tumbling around. The sound of the ball hitting the stumps. You learn all this swing, seam and bouncers later. The first thing you want to do is to hear the ball on the stumps. That yorker hitting the stumps. That smile, that pleasure it gave me, I can never get it from anywhere. That is the smile from inside. I am on the top of the world.

I never enjoyed hitting people. I never ever enjoyed hitting people. Not for one second of my life.

But it is also part of your work. You have to scare batsmen.
I could smell fear. I used to sense fear. I used to see fear in people's eyes. I would be terrified against my bowling. My action as it is was difficult to pick. Then I had a lethal slower one and a quick fast bouncer.

For someone who had that bouncer, it is surprising you didn't like hitting batsmen.
I was more interested in getting people out. If I couldn't, then I would love to hit people. I never enjoyed it.

"You are running in, your heartbeat is 180-plus. My body temperature would be 102-103 when bowling. That temperature, you would go to hospital"

Why did you hug Gary Kirsten after you hit him in a Test match in 2003 and before he could even fall to the ground?
I felt bad. He was a friend of mine. In 1995, I played a four-day game against Gary Kirsten's side, and I went up to him and said, "Do you think I can be Waqar one day?" I hadn't made my debut then. He said yes. In broken English I asked him again, "Do you think I have it?" He said yes, I had it.

What is the difference between loving to hit people and not enjoying it?
If I can't get them out, then I would love to hit them. If I could get them out, I didn't want to hit them. If someone was getting on top of me, like the Australians often did, I liked to go after them. They always encouraged me to bowl faster. That's why I loved Australia. They always give it back to you.

Talking of Australia, that Test in Sharjah, Matthew Hayden said that it was like sitting outside an oven with a fan blowing all the heat towards you. Pakistan were bowled out for 59, but you still bowled that quick spell with nothing to win at all. Where did that come from?
The battle within the battle. You start your own battles. When your team is down and out, you then want to see how good you are as an individual, as a human. I am always driven by a passion. If there is no passion, I am half the man I am.

You bowled two bouncers to Hayden, and then bowled him with a full ball [in Australia]. When do you know that the bouncer has done its work and now is the time to bowl a full, quick one?
I used to check their footwork. Hayden was charging at me. I bowled a couple of bouncers, and I could see his feet were not charging at me. I knew that. I trapped him.

When you are bowling the bouncer, sprinting in, twisting your own body, following through, can you keep an eye on the footwork?
You could tell from where he ended. Also, I had two designated fielders who are telling me everything about how he is playing. Because when you are bowling so fast, you don't tend to think that much. So you have designated fielders. And you have fielders to look after the ball.

"You learn all this swing, seam and bouncers later. The first thing you want to do is to hear the ball on the stumps" © AFP

How much of a high is it to know that the batsman is afraid of you?
The high was not the fear. The high was that I was able to bowl quicker than anyone else. On a good day I can do almost anything. That was the high. I can hit people at will. I can get people out at will. I can fool around with them at will.

What about the days when you couldn't do that?
Frustrating days. But that was a learning curve. I used to learn. If I can't get [Virender] Sehwag out, I must find out ways to get him out in the next Test. And I developed that delivery that I used to slide across the crease and then push inwards in the air, and he used to commit to playing it, but the ball left him. I found that method.

That's one of the most difficult balls to bowl. How did you learn it?
I learned. I kept it in my mind. I used to practise this in the nets. I used to lock my wrist, the outswing wrist. I knew I couldn't play with it with my fingers because I wasn't like Wasim [Akram] or Waqar. They were much superior than I was. I developed a method of locking my wrist. I used to lock the wrist and I used to use the crease. If you bowl from close to the stumps, the batsman had room to play if it left him from middle and off. So what I did was slide away from the stumps, I used to bowl from the middle [of the crease] and found out that even that was manageable for the batsman. So I would slide even further, right to the edge of the crease, push the ball in, have them play for the angle, and then get the ball to leave them. Most of the times I got Sachin [Tendulkar] out like that.

They always came half-forward to me. So they had to push their bat forward. That's where the trick was.

"I used to throw rocks on the mountains next to my house. I used to build up muscles by throwing rocks. Then I started bowling with the rocks"

Isn't this half-forward movement a joy? Because only to truly fast bowlers do good batsmen move only half-forward.
Any player is going to play half-forward to me. It's not about Sachin. It's not about [Rahul] Dravid.

Yeah, that's what. You see a bowler who is 7-8kph slower than you, and you will see Sachin stretching out fully to play a full ball. With you, he or other big batsmen didn't.
Yeah, because they are always expecting a short ball, and want to be prepared for that. They know I can bowl that ball.

Is it just the short-pitched ball or the pace that is keeping the batsman half-forward?
Let me tell you a trade secret. When I pitched the ball up, I wasn't that quick. This is around 1997, 1998. I had to develop pace. I had to lengthen my arm. What I did was take a brick and work with that. Then I found heavier balls. Then I found out that if I bowled with heavier balls in practice, I could increase my pace. I started using custom-made balls that were thrice as heavy as the actual ball. I started bowling with those, putting them up to the stumps as fast as I could. I started with a three-pace run-up, and then kept going back and back gradually until I reached the top of my normal run-up. I realised that by doing that I developed muscles in my shoulder, my glutes and my back. The human mind is such a freak, it can tell your body to do anything. Apart from that my training helped me a lot to increase my pace.

You bowled with bricks?
I used to throw rocks on the mountains next to my house. I used to build up muscles by throwing rocks. Then I started bowling with the rocks.

Over 22 yards?
Yes. I picked up 24 different rocks. I used to bowl with that in the streets. Other kids in the street used to think I was mad.

Then I used to take the old tattered balls from the nets back with me. I used to reverse them in my neighbourhood. That's how I learned reverse swing. I learned the aerodynamics doing that. You have to play with the wind. Bowlers nowadays don't know what to do when the wind is blowing.

"I can't remember a day I didn't have pain in my knees" © Associated Press

Tell me your training routine before a match.
Before a match? First I used to limp out of my bed. I used to crawl to the bathroom. Get into the hot tub. Put my Tubigrips on my knees. Used to rub the muscles. Then get on a bicycle for 30 minutes. This is the training people never saw me do before a match. Leg extensions. Three hundred, to get them going.

Three hundred?
Yeah, almost 300. Every day. Get them loose. Leg curls. Then a bit of wing work. Then get into a pool. Then get back into the hot tub. Then massage myself again. Then go to the ground. I used to do long stretches. I used to stretch a lot.

Then when I was ready to bowl the first ball I used to charge in. I never used to hold back. It just felt right.

After I knew I was not going to stay fit for a long period, I thought I might as well rush to fame. Quick fame. And as long as I play for Pakistan, win Test matches. Be remembered as the best strike bowler.

You said you felt the best when the run-up was smooth, but it wouldn't happen every day, right?
No, it didn't happen every day because I had injured knees. I could never recover from the knee injury in 1997. Then I had to manage with the pain. I used to suck the fluid out of my knees with syringes. You can check with my team-mates. I used to go to the hospital every day to get that done. Because my knee joints were so loose, they used to get so much friction that they retained fluid. That fluid used to make my knees swell to twice their size. I had to suck it out, and then go back to the hospital after every game to do that again. That happened continuously for five years until my knees dried out and I started cracking my bones. This is what happens.

"The good thing about Pakistan fast bowlers is they learn everything on the street. They are so tough and rugged. 'I am quick, face me'"

Adam Gilchrist used to say the biggest joy of hitting a six was that a split second before anyone would know, you, the batsman, knew that this shot is going for a six. Do fast bowlers feel it, too, from how they release the ball, that this ball is going to be fast?
When I used to tie the laces, I would know. I never used to think about the game. I never used to plan. I didn't take the pressure. I didn't care. I was the most fearless fast bowler. I didn't care. I mean, you don't need to care when you are bowling at 95 miles an hour. Why do you care? But I started thinking about the game when I used to tie my laces. And I used to know that this is the day. My feet are feeling so well. The happiest moment of my life was enjoying putting that bowling armoury on without feeling any pain. I used to feel so nice. It was like someone had given me an extra pair of legs.

My shoes were super-expensive. They were thousand quid a pair. They were so stabilised, they gave me all the support I needed. I used the best technology available to manage with my knees.

Fast bowling is not for everyone. You need obsession. Can you explain that junoon?
You have to be a bit abnormal to be a fast bowler. This is not normal work for the body. Pivoting and twisting your body when running in at full sprint is not normal for the body. For that you have got to be abnormal. You call it abnormal, I call it extraordinary.

When you know you can pull it off and not many others can, that was the great thing. When you can swing your arm quicker than anyone else in the world, that gives you the joy.

You have to be mad, yes. There are 100,000 people at Eden Gardens and it is early in your career, and to run in and bowl fast, obviously you have to be junooni. If you are not junooni, how will you bowl? You have to shut everything else off. I used to see only the batsman, I used to narrow my vision to just the batsman.

So you looked at the batsman and not at the spot where you wanted to land the ball?
The length I was to bowl was in my mind at the top of my mark. I used to think when walking back. I was a thinking fast bowler. I was never erratic. I didn't bowl wide balls or no-balls. I didn't like that. With that run-up, you can't afford to bowl a wide. It kills you.

With the static ball, with some movements in your body, you can bring that static ball to life. To make it do things batsmen are not expecting. You have got to be a magician for that. You are playing with the hair, you are playing with the wind, you are playing with the weather, you are playing with the batsmen, you are playing with the pitch, you are playing with people's feelings.

"I could never recover from the knee injury in 1997" © Getty Images

You felt powerful?
Yes. It makes you feel powerful. You feel like a juggler. You are fooling around with them. I felt sorry for the batsmen most of the time because they are sitting in their cocoon, under their shell, and better be ready to face the man who can juggle you around. I also had the off days when they used to hit me around, but I was more in control than they were.

These off days. When you have bowled a six-over spell, you have given it your all, but you haven't been able to take a wicket in that spell. After that what did you do?
For two overs I wouldn't know where I was. I used to take 20 minutes to come back to normal. That time you could get me involved in fights, in brawls, in anything. I have nothing left in my body. You push me, I will push you back. That's when, sadly, that incident happened with [Mohammad] Asif. Him and [Shahid] Afridi were saying something and I lost it. I had no idea where I was. It takes you ten to 15 minutes to normalise.

Mentally I am off for 15 minutes. I knew the ball was coming to me, and I could field and throw it back on auto-pilot. That's about it. I never knew what was happening. And I didn't want to think about anything else. After ten minutes I used to think, what did I do wrong, and about what I needed to do right to get the batsman out.

Do you need to be angry to become a fast bowler?
No. It's just a tough job. You are running in, your heartbeat is 180-plus, at least mine used to be. My body temperature would always be 102-103 when bowling. That temperature, you would go to hospital. In that temperature if a guy hits you for four, do you expect me to blow kisses? At that time when you are huffing and puffing and someone hits you for four, you will lose it. This is not a normal job.

"I am an outlaw. I couldn't be told what to do. I cannot stay within limits. It's not me when I am within limits"

What is the presence of a fast bowler?
People say you should stand tall and make yourself look bigger. Smarter fast bowlers studied the batsman. After studying the batsman, they felt confident that they knew how to trap him. When you have the plan ready, you automatically start to look bigger. This comes across as attitude. Attitude is the most important for fast bowling. Attitude is not just bowling quick. Fast bowling is not just bowling quick and walking back to the mark. Why did you bowl fast? You need to know the method. What do you need to do to improve? That's what makes a fast bowler. It's not aaye, mara thak, chalo [come, bowl fast, leave]. That thinking process makes you a fast bowler.

This would have taken you time.
No, I learned that in street cricket. That is the good thing about Pakistan fast bowlers. They learn everything on the street. They are so tough and rugged. They don't care about anything else. "I am quick, face me."

The street-schooling process teaches you the attitude. We are thinking fast bowlers, but we are not the best managers of our lives. We are not the smartest people. We are very good at what we do, but the rest, we don't know what to do with it.

You talk about this rugged attitude. That if someone hits you for a four, you will be angry and come back. Isn't it difficult to bring in craft at such a time?
It's very simple. When a youngster comes to a nets session, push him. Let him know he is going to be pushed around. He has to push back. I am going to bully you. You have to stop being bullied.

Think about the ball you are carrying. The batsman cannot bully you. This ball will go according to your wishes. You want him to do this, he will go and do what you want him to do.

But to make the ball do what you want it to do is not just bravado, right?
It is the attitude. I want it to do this, and I am going to work really hard to achieve this. There are certain training methods to do this. Fast bowling is a way of living. Even off the field you are a fast bowler. You just don't finish as a fast bowler after six hours of play. You remain a fast bowler. The attitude follows you. You stay positive. I have to do this. Body is full of water. Usko kissi bhi pyale mein daalo, waisi dhal jayegi [It will take the shape of any cup]. You must be ready to ask the right questions of yourself.

Two things: don't be scared, and don't run away from hard work. Right methods of training.

"You just don't finish as a fast bowler after six hours of play. You remain a fast bowler. The attitude follows you" © AFP

Talking of the right methods of training - you hated nets.
Yes, nets destroy fast bowlers. In the net, the pitch area looks smaller. And you are in a cocoon. Even if you are hit, how far will the ball go? Into the side net. You won't get humiliated. Come outside, on a pitch, if you bowl slightly loose, you will be hit for four through the gap. Then you will hurt. Then you will come back strongly. That makes a bowler.

You used the crowd a lot to get yourself going.
I have always been a people's man. I can put up a good show. You are up against the world. Take that fight. Use it. Get embarrassed. By getting hit by Sachin over point. Then come back. Hit him on the head. Get him out on 98. Get embarrassed, it's okay. Use that embarrassment to channel your energy. Find a method there too. Whoever finds a method in that madness becomes a good fast bowler.

Do you look back and think, with the brittle body, cracking bones in the knees, all the pain you put yourself through, do you look back and think, "How did I manage this?"
I can still do it. If I get my knee reconstruction done. I can bowl through the pain barrier. Last night I bowled at full pace. At Lashings. I could have bowled from two steps, but no. The minute he hit me for a four, I took my full run-up and went after him.

That's why I say even a club game is better than the nets. When a kid from a club hits you for a four, you will be ashamed, and then you will run in hard. Don't go to nets. Better bowl ten overs for a club side. Even if he is not a good batsman, you will have to think him out, right?

"It is not a battle of egos. It is a battle of talents. I want to prove my brain is working better at that time than yours. You have to think before he thinks"

You had this tendency of going after the best batsman in the opposition.
Because that is only going to make me a better bowler. Dravid, Sachin at times, Sehwag at times. When we played against Australia, [Ricky] Ponting and Hayden made me a better bowler. I got Hayden out three times. When you are running in and someone charges at you, he is asking you to think more. That makes you a better fast bowler.

Was it also about the fast bowler's ego that you want the best batsman?
It is not a battle of egos. It is a battle of talents. I want to prove my brain is working better at that time than yours. You have to think before he thinks. I have been taught that by the best - Wasim. With good fast bowlers, the bowling starts the minute the batsman crosses the rope. We used to read newspaper articles about the batsman, we used to find out what he is going through, even personal problems. Bad form. Injury. And we used to exploit it.

Give me an example.
We knew Sachin had a bad elbow and he couldn't pull or hook. And I exploited that by bowling bouncers. Every third ball would be a bouncer. We knew he was using a heavy bat, and with that injury I knew he couldn't hook and pull me. We had a fielder back there on the hook. Even if he clears him once, how many sixes can he hit? You need one ball to get him out. We always knew the shortcomings of batsmen. A smart bowler reads the batsman's problem, their footwork, faults in their techniques, and the pressures that the batsman is going through.

Off the field what was your relationship with the best batsmen of the opposition like?
Off the field I was the friendliest cricketer. I have only ever fought once. With Asif. He pushed me over the edge. I never behaved insultingly with my seniors.

"I have always been a people's man. I can put up a good show" © AFP

But did the opposition batsmen take extra care not to annoy you because you were so fast?
Yes, even my own batsmen. Yousuf used to give me a lot of massages before the nets. Shoaib, mujhe maari na, yaar [Shoaib, don't hit me]. I used to get them to do things for me before the nets. Nets used to be full on, but I have never ever hit anyone in the nets. Except for Saeed Anwar, who once got hit badly on the elbow.

Is it in your control to not hit someone?
Yes. The best I have seen in the nets is Inzamam [-ul-Haq]. I was the quickest but he had time when he played. I used to make sure when someone batted against me, he got good practice out of me. When they are facing my pace, they will have a better chance of performing when they face lesser pace.

Did you bowl within yourself?
Never. I can't. I am an outlaw.

Even when you were tired and the team had been bowled out for a low score and there was a long day ahead?
Outlaw. The biggest motivation for me when living that life was bowling fast. I lived in the fast lane. Either for the right or wrong reasons, I liked to do what I did. I couldn't be told what to do. I cannot stay within limits. It's not me when I am within limits.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo