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It is not known whether Sania Mirza or the now-happily-divorced Ayesha Siddiqui are aware that as a child growing up in the early '80s in the dusty bylanes of Sialkot, Shoaib Malik's sole passion was to fly kites. Perhaps it was here that he realised a kite always rises against and not with the wind.
Opposition, discord, two-timing and turbulence are nothing new for those adept at surfing the irresolute waves of Pakistan cricket "a world mired in flagrant double cross, prone to imploding under its own stresses. Shoaib, former Pakistan skipper, man of many roles, victim and instigator of many a smoke-and-mirror game, has risen to being its Everyman.
As an international batsman of some repute, he is the antithesis of every past Pakistani great. Shoaib is not mercurial in his strokeplay nor given to being a man of violent passions on the field of play. The keenest eye has to strain hard to spot any glimpse of beauty or grace in his batting, yet his quiet effectiveness brooks no arguments. His off-breaks, often subject to scrutiny and hauled up for their illegality, are flattish and workmanlike, but quite perfect for modern cricket's restrictive needs.
This was where he began, with the ball, in a one-day debut in Sharjah against the West Indies in 1999. Throughout " even now as he resolutely serves a legal notice to the Pakistan Cricket Board for having banned him from international play for a year "Shoaib has been adept at working his way up. His strength, this flexibility, has also been his weakness: there are enough performances of character, yet few standout moments in a decade-long career.
Shoaib's biggest backer was his father, Malik Faqueer Hussain, or Malik Salim as Shoaib refers to him, a shopkeeper of modest means who sold local footwear. He used to drop Malik junior to the playgrounds on the bicycle and people would say, "Baap beta pagal hain (both father and son are mad). " Shoaib started off, like millions of budding Pakistani cricketers, with tape ball cricket. Then, in 1993, he attended Imran Khan's Pepsi coaching clinic in Sialkot and his life turned around. From there it went like a dream " from the trials for the Under-15 World Cup in Lahore to the series against the England Under-19 s, from impressing Wasim Akram and Moin Khan with his tweakers in the Wills Cup to, eventually, a national berth.
In all this, Shoaib never forgot his father's support. When Malik Salim died of throat cancer in 2006, Shoaib broke down in an interview, acknowledging how his father used to pack cricket gear into his school bag instead of books. There are rumours Salim was vehemently against Shoaib jilting Ayesha, but they remain, much like everything else in this relationship, more shadowplay than acknowledged fact.
Always a prolific scorer against India, his effectiveness as a handy middle-order bulwark soon began to emerge. In Tests, he averages a modest 36. 11 from only 29 games. In ODIs, where he is more effective, centuries have come as an opener, at one-down and at number four, though his most entertaining innings remains the 41-ball 82 against South Africa in 2003, at No. 6. In 2006, he had a glorious run against India, scoring 90, 95 and 108 in successive home ODIs. The first Test hundred too came that year, against Sri Lanka, but the Shoaib we know today would not have emerged without the late Bob Woolmer's tutelage, and Pakistan's shambolic 2007 World Cup campaign in the wake of which he was made captain.
Shoaib was only 25, and marked for greatness by none other than Imran Khan for his "sharp cricketing brain". But sadly, when he lost the captaincy in February 2009 after a string of indifferent performances and perennial infighting, the PCB accused him of being "aloof", stating there was "nothing exciting in his captaincy". He couldn't command a place by virtue of form alone and he had problems with seniors, notably Mohammad Yousuf, once his best friend in the team. "It was unanimously decided he should play just as a player, " the PCB said.
Even the highs of that period, notably the run to the final in the World T20 in Johannesburg, were soured by Shoaib's often blunt and uncultivated comments, like when he said after Pakistan lost the final to India: "I want to thank you back home [in] Pakistan and where the Muslim lives all over the world. " Outrage followed, but he would soon follow it up with a bloomer in Durban when, after his team lost to India this time in a bowlout, he said he had no idea what the rules were. Back in 2005, in Hyderabad, he had accepted marrying a local girl during a game before immediately retracting his statement. Increasingly, it was becoming clear Shoaib's reliability had always been a matter of perspective.
Today, professionally and personally, he seems to be at his lowest ebb. A string of defeats to Australia have resulted in another knee-jerk reaction from the administration and a one-year ban for unspecified reasons, though local media speculated he was suspected of match-fixing. With the impending marriage to Sania will come intense media and public scrutiny, especially in Pakistan. Perhaps even talk of his past foibles and anxieties about a looming culture clash.
Yet Shoaib is nothing if not resilient. That famed suppleness and flexibility may again see this man through. His cricketing career proves he may often tie himself in knots, but is equally adept at untangling them. A lasting cross-border marriage with the glamour queen of Indian sport may silence the cynics like never before. The unlikely hero may yet have the last laugh.
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