A career of hits and misses

When he was good he was outstanding, but Shoaib Akhtar missed more than 50% of the Tests and ODIs that Pakistan played in his 13-year career

A tally of 178 wickets in 46 Test matches is a good reason to say that Shoaib Akhtar's impact on his team cannot be measured by statistics alone. It's true that the numbers aren't bad at all - he also took 241 ODI wickets, and his averages in both forms are the fourth-best for any Pakistan bowler who took more than 150 wickets, while his Test strike rate of 45.7 is second only to Waqar Younis' 43.4. Yet there remains a feeling that Shoaib could have been much more than he eventually was, and that he should have taken many more wickets, and impacted a lot more matches, than he did.

Shoaib's international career stretched more than 13 years, which means he averaged 3.54 Tests and 12.54 ODIs per year. Allowing five days per Test, he played, on an average, about 30 days of international cricket per year. (And if you feel extremely generous, add a day per year for the 15 Twenty20 internationals.) Wasim Akram, on the other hand, averaged about 49 days of international cricket a year over 18 years.

From the beginning of his career Shoaib's ability was never in doubt, but he seldom strung together a set of top-class performances. His first five-for came in only his third Test: against South Africa in Durban, Shoaib took 5 for 43 in an exciting win, with none of the fielders contributing in any of his wickets - four, including Jacques Kallis, were bowled, and one was lbw. That trend was to continue through most of his career, with 99 out of 178 victims either bowled or lbw, but in his next five Tests he took only 10 wickets, before stunning Eden Gardens and the whole of India with incredible swinging yorkers at high speed that Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar couldn't keep out. His match haul of 8 for 118 was instrumental in Pakistan's 46-run win, but again, it failed to spark a sustained run of brilliance, as he managed only 20 wickets in his next seven Tests. In his first four years in Test cricket, Shoaib averaged less than three wickets per Test, and more than 36 runs per wicket.

The change came in 2002, and the next two years turned out to be the greatest of his Test career. In only 13 Tests he took 72 wickets, striking once every 30 deliveries. He blew away West Indies in Sharjah but saved his best for Australia and New Zealand. In Colombo against Australia, he was more than a handful for some of the best batsmen of the time, blowing away Ricky Ponting, the Waugh brothers and Adam Gilchrist in a spell that remains one of the best ever seen in Test cricket. A few months before that Colombo blitz, he had destroyed New Zealand's line-up in Lahore, taking 6 for 11 in 8.2 overs, which remain his best figures in Test cricket, and he finished 2003 with match figures of 11 for 78 in the Boxing Day Test in Wellington. Thankfully for New Zealand's batsmen, those were the only two Tests he played against them - his career average versus New Zealand is 5.23. All three of his Man-of-the-Match displays came during this two-year period, as did his longest stretch of consecutive Tests, when he played seven in a row between January and October 2002 (which is only 146 short of the world record).

From 2004 onwards Shoaib played only 17 Tests, missing matches for reasons too varied to be listed here. He had a few memorable performances but never reached the heights he did in 2002 and 2003. (Click here for Shoaib's career summary in Tests.)

Shoaib Akhtar's Test career

Period Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Till Dec 2001 16 46 36.45 64.1 2/0
Jan 2002 to Dec 2003 13 72 15.08 30.4 6/2
Jan 2004 onwards 17 60 30.18 50.0 4/0
Career 46 178 25.69 45.7 12/2

Shoaib's tally of 178 Test wickets is the eighth-highest for Pakistan, and only three of those bowlers have a better average.

 

Best Pakistan bowlers in Tests (Qual: 150 wickets)

Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Imran Khan 88 362 22.81 53.7 23/6
Waqar Younis 87 373 23.56 43.4 22/5
Wasim Akram 104 414 23.62 54.6 25/5
Shoaib Akhtar 46 178 25.69 45.7 12/2
Iqbal Qasim 50 171 28.11 76.1 8/2
Saqlain Mushtaq 49 208 29.83 67.6 13/3

Shoaib's stats are admittedly excellent, but the problem with him was Pakistan could never be sure when he was fit and available to play. Since the beginning of his Test career on November 29, 1997, Pakistan have played 115 Tests, of which Shoaib played only 46. Pakistan's results in the Tests he played in were significantly better than when he didn't - the win-loss ratio was 1.25 when he played, and 0.71 when he was out of the team.

 

Pakistan with and without Shoaib in Tests since Nov 29, 1997

  Tests Won/Lost Wickets Average Strike rate
With Shoaib 46 20/16 702 33.63 62.1
Without Shoaib 69 20/28 1038 34.70 67.4

However, the number of Tests he missed meant he could never form a meaningful combination with another fast bowler. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis played 61 Tests together, which is more than the total number of matches Shoaib played. The most Tests another fast bowler played with him was 20, by Mohammad Sami (though it's arguable what kind of support Shoaib got from him). Waqar played 19, while Abdul Razzaq, who was hardly a strike bowler, played 17.

The two other fast bowlers with whom Shoaib could have formed a lethal on-field combination are Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif, but Asif ended up playing only four Tests with Shoaib, and Gul managed just three.

 

Other Pakistan bowlers in the 46 Tests that Shoaib played

Bowler Tests Wickets Average Strike rate 5WI/ 10WM
Danish Kaneria 25 93 37.11 71.2 4/0
Saqlain Mushtaq 16 71 25.60 53.9 4/1
Waqar Younis 19 69 25.46 44.0 2/1
Mohammad Sami 20 44 54.63 92.4 0/0
Abdul Razzaq 17 34 36.29 64.9 0/0

Even in the matches that Shoaib played, there wasn't always a guarantee that he would last the duration: in the 46 Tests he played, Shoaib bowled only 8143 deliveries, sometimes because of his fitness worries mid-match, and sometimes because captains didn't want to risk too many overs from him. Only three times in his career did he bowl more than 30 overs in an innings, while the only instance he bowled more than 50 in a match was against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo in 1998.

Over his career, Shoaib averaged 177 balls per match, which is the second-lowest among fast bowlers with at least 150 Test wickets. The only one lower than him is Kallis, who obviously does a lot more in the South African team than just bowl.

 

Least balls per match by fast bowlers in Tests (Qual: 150 wickets)

Bowler Tests Balls bowled Wickets Average Balls per match
Jacques Kallis 145 18,337 270 32.01 126.46
Shoaib Akhtar 46 8143 178 25.69 177.02
Waqar Younis 87 16,224 373 23.56 186.48
Chris Cairns 62 11,698 218 29.40 188.68
Andrew Flintoff 79 14,951 226 32.78 189.25
Keith Miller 55 10,461 170 22.97 190.20
Bob Willis 90 17,357 325 25.20 192.86
Ian Bishop 43 8407 161 24.27 195.51

As an ODI bowler, Shoaib's biggest asset was his strike rate. In a format thatwhich places a premium on economy, he pegged teams back with his ability to take wickets. Like in Tests, he played less than 50% of Pakistan's ODIs since his debut, but unlike the Test stats, his absence didn't impact the team's results adversely in ODIs. Of the 158 games he played for Pakistan, the team won 84 and lost 72; in the 188 matches he didn't play, Pakistan won 110 and lost 73.

Another difference between his Test and ODI numbers is the way he began his ODI career. He struggled for consistency in Tests, but in ODIs he was among the wickets straightaway, getting two or more in nine of his first 15 ODIs. He'd played only 16 ODIs going into the 1999 World Cup, but he handled the pressure well, taking 16 wickets in 10 games, including his first Man-of-the-Match award in the semi-finals against his favourite opponents, New Zealand, for a haul of 3 for 55.

Like in Tests, his best ODI phase too was till the end of 2003. He was positively devastating in some matches during this period, especially against New Zealand: over a 15-month period he took 5 for 19 and 6 for 16 against them, which remained two of his best ODI performances.

 

Shoaib in ODIs

Period ODIs Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Till Dec 2003 95 155 21.41 4.51 28.4
Jan 2004 onwards 68 92 30.97 5.09 36.4
Career 163 247 24.97 4.76 31.4

Despite the number of games he missed, Shoaib still finishes as Pakistan's sixth-highest wicket-taker in ODIs, and fourth in terms of averages among Pakistan bowlers who've taken at least 150 wickets.

 

Top Pakistan bowlers in ODIs (Qual: 150 wickets)

Bowler ODIs Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Saqlain Mushtaq 169 288 21.78 4.29 30.4
Wasim Akram 356 502 23.52 3.89 36.2
Waqar Younis 262 416 23.84 4.68 30.5
Shoaib Akhtar 158 241 24.70 4.75 31.1
Imran Khan 175 182 26.61 3.89 40.9

During his pomp Shoaib was one of the best ODI bowlers going around, especially in terms of his wicket-taking ability. Till the end of 2003 he'd taken 155 wickets in 95 games, with an average and strike rate that were among the best. Only Muttiah Muralitharan and McGrath had a better average than Shoaib's 21.41, while Brett Lee was the only one with a better strike rate.

 

Best averages in ODIs between Mar 28, 1998 and Dec 31, 2003 (Qual: 100 wickets)

Bowler ODIs Wickets Average Econ rate Strike rate
Muttiah Muralitharan 139 234 18.82 3.50 32.1
Glenn McGrath 114 195 19.59 3.85 30.5
Shoaib Akhtar 95 155 21.41 4.51 28.4
Brett Lee 73 137 21.43 4.69 27.4
Allan Donald 65 103 22.49 4.30 31.3
Shaun Pollock 155 217 22.55 3.67 36.8
Makhaya Ntini 84 132 22.71 4.23 32.1
Saqlain Mushtaq 90 133 24.89 4.28 34.8

When Shoaib took wickets, Pakistan usually won. Of his 247 wickets, 154 came in victories, and in those 85 games Shoaib struck every 25.7 deliveries, which is the second-best among those with 150 wickets, next only to Saqlain. In fact, Shoaib is one of only five bowlers in the history of ODI cricket to take more than 150 wickets at an average of less than 25 and a strike rate of below 32 balls per wicket. All these are excellent stats, but with more commitment and a better attitude, his numbers would have been even more impressive.

 

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