After the storm and hype that surrounded its release, Shoaib Akhtar's 'Controversially Yours' falls short in delivering what it promised, ironically just as its subject himself did throughout his mercurial career. Perhaps unintentionally emulating Shoaib's time in cricket, the book is short, enjoyable and at times even amusing; yet it is also often inconsistent and, frustratingly, leaves one asking for more.
The story begins right at the start, with his birth in a modest household in Rawalpindi, and traces his gradual yet dramatic rise from a life of poverty to the heights of cricketing glory and success. In fact, just like one of those Bollywood movies which Shoaib is so fond of, his tale too follows a linear narrative and, despite being predictable, is engrossing and entertaining.
Unfortunately for cricket enthusiasts though, the 'hero' here is not the devastating fast bowler who holds the world record for the quickest delivery; instead, the book focuses on the numerous controversies that frequently overshadowed Shoaib's career. So while all his exploits on the field are mentioned, very often the account is all too brief and sketchy. For instance, he explains how his Test debut was delayed by an entire year due to an allegedly incorrect report from his Pakistan A team coach. However, despite it having initiated his 'undisciplined' tag and perhaps cost him a chance to feature in the 1996 World Cup, the entire episode is dealt with in just two paragraphs.
Even once his career takes off, there is more print space devoted to his troubles off-the-field rather than his exploits on it. Specifics on the preparation, skill and thought process that led to his most memorable spells - the 1999 World Cup; New Zealand's 2002 tour of Pakistan; the 2005 home series against England, to name a few - are sadly missing. There is also little insight into the world of cricket and his opponents outside of Pakistan, except the few snippets when Shoaib gives his views on the IPL or when he talks about the likes of Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. And those are hardly as contentious are the pre-release publicity drive suggested. One may not agree with him, but it is a rare occasion in the book when his personal opinion on a cricketer other than himself comes across.
If one is looking for controversy, there is far more scope in the detailed and forthright descriptions of his teammates, seniors and officials. From former players like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, to ex-Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairmen like Naseem Ashraf and Ijaz Butt, and coaches like Intikhab Alam and Javed Miandad, no one is spared, except Imran Khan.
The entire book then, comes across as Shoaib's attempt to settle scores as well as defend his position by giving his side of the story. And while that does not do justice to his life as a sportsman, it does bring out a complete portrait of his personality, which is, as expected, abrasive and colourful. He is confident and ambitious, willing to work hard and push his body to achieve his dreams; he is unforgiving and vengeful towards those he feels persecuted him, delighting in proving them wrong (in one instance, he goes to a coach's home to shower abuses on him!); he is also unapologetic about his mistakes, his general lack of respect for rules and his often wild interests and outgoing lifestyle.
Shoaib glosses over his own mistakes and transgressions; at the same time, there are instances when he touches a chord, such as when he tells us how he hesitated to approach a girl at a restaurant in Ireland, how his visits old haunts in Rawalpindi to escape from his troubles, how he indulges in mischievous pranks, or how much he simply loves to run.
Apart from this, the most interesting parts of the book come towards the end, when Shoaib describes his own experience with various injuries and then passes judgment over PCB officials, teammates and in fact, the entire system. While the former is a revealing but repetitive account of the extent to which fast bowlers put their bodies on the line, the latter sadly confirms the problems that have come to characterize Pakistan cricket.
Shoaib also describes the politics and feuds that crippled the team. There are some very funny stories relating to the Pakistan dressing room, such as when Saqlain Mushtaq chases then-coach Miandad with a cricket bat after learning that he might be dropped from the team.
In the process, Shoaib manages to raise some valid concerns, lamenting the lack of unity and the presence of a conducive environment for the youngsters to develop in. Although he deals with the issues of ball-tampering and match-fixing superficially, he does paint a grim picture of the problems that players face as they try to grapple with the pressure and fame, with some of them taking recourse to alcohol and drugs. In light of the recent spot-fixing scandal, this explains to some extent how a player like Mohammad Amir might have been enticed. Shoaib also outlines some measures he feels can be taken to improve Pakistan cricket and the players' plight, especially post-retirement; and that only serves to highlight what the book might have been had he been similarly vocal about other matters as well.
The style of the book does not help. Although conversational and easy to read, there is at times no cohesion and certain parts just randomly follow one another. Sometimes names are mentioned without explaining who those people are, and in some cases, names are also mis-spelt. (For instance, Sourav is written as 'Saurav.') However, the anecdotes littered throughout the book make it a more enjoyable read.
All in all, 'Controversially Yours' is interesting but not compelling, revealing but not shocking, and candid without being complete. Having seen the charismatic cricketer in his interviews and knowing of his love for Bollywood, one wonders if perhaps the fitting medium for his story might be a movie instead.
'Controversially Yours', by Shoaib Akhtar with Anshu Dogra, is published by Harper Sport. Price: Rs 499.