“Let me ask you a question.” Shoaib Akhtar fixes me with those saucer eyes. “Tell me, truthfully, when were you happiest?”
“Erm, I’m not sure. The birth of my child?”
This feels like the right thing to say and I think might call the former fast bowler’s bluff. No chance.
“Right, increase that by a thousand and it’ll be somewhere near what it feels like to bowl truly fast. If you get a wicket after all that effort, when the ball hits the stumps, the sound of it goes inside your soul and explodes like an atom bomb. That’s true happiness.”
He remains the fastest bowler on the planet. “Every time I turn on the TV, I say: ‘Is there anyone out there who can step up? Please take this record away from me,’ I’ll be the first to fly out and shake them by the hand.”
“The Rawalpindi Express” is in full flow. This once meant a blur of hubcap pecs and chestnut curtains steaming in from a seemingly never-ending run-up towards a terrified batsman. Today he is working up a head of steam on a video call from his home in Pakistan. “Had I been the fittest guy, I would’ve been the greatest ever.”
Shoaib took 444 international wickets in a remarkable but controversial 15-year career during which he became the first man to break the 100mph barrier, a bowler who on his day was one of the most thrilling sights the game has seen.
He is heartwarmingly excited about the coming Test series. “It’s fantastic that England are coming back with a strong side for a fully fledged series. It’s been a long 17 years since they played Test cricket in Pakistan back in 2005 … their confidence was skyrocketing but I soon put paid to that!”
England’s 2005 visit was one of Shoaib’s finest Test series. He took 17 wickets in three matches bowling with electric pace and plenty of nous. Kevin Pietersen described Shoaib’s pace as “frightening” while Michael Vaughan also praised him for his cleverly concealed slower ball.
“I was on the edge of my sofa wondering whether I was going to be selected for the series or not. Once I was, then my main motivation was Freddie Flintoff.”
Flintoff had mocked Shoaib after encountering him in the 2005 ICC Super Series, saying he “looked like Tarzan but bowled like Jane”. Shoaib spent the weeks before the series getting as fit as possible for a showdown with England’s premier all-rounder. “I got Freddie on my radar and I just started bowling bouncers. He was uncomfortable, I got him out and said to him: ‘How do I look Mr Flintoff, like Tarzan or Jane?’
“He said: ‘Forgive me Shoaib. You are two different people in a span of three weeks. You were unfit and down in the mouth and now you are totally different. What happened?’ I said: ‘A lot of painkillers and even more heart.’”
Pakistan won a raucous series 2-0, Shoaib was at the heart of its most memorable moments, among them his “chicken dance” after dismissing Kevin Pietersen and yorking Ashley Giles with a delivery so potent that the beleaguered Englishman’s stumps were splattered into separate postcodes.
Today Shoaib has just had a knee partially replaced and has more operations lined up. Though he is still recuperating, it seems old habits die hard. “The biggest advantage that I had was that I could terrorise the batsman. I’ve never really lost that instinct.
“I was playing with my son today and he wasn’t hitting it right and I just got so aggressive and sent down a bouncer! My brother goes: ‘What are you doing!? He’s a six-year-old kid!’ And I’m like: ‘I’m so sorry. My competitive nature took over me!’”
He is full of praise for both Pakistan’s and England’s bowling attacks. He has got a lot of time for Mark Wood, particularly as he believes that fast bowlers “should not be normal guys”, and was impressed with him clocking up a delivery at 97mph in Pakistan recently. “I read [Wood’s] interview where he said he can’t become part of the 100mph group. He’s wrong.”
Wood, who is set to miss the first Test with a hip injury, might not be in the mood to get tips on how to find that few extra mph just now but Shoaib is more than happy to share some pointers. These include running with trucks tied to his waist and bowling on a 26-yard pitch with a three-times-as-heavy ball. “It’s about ego and persistence.”
He reserves most praise, though, for a wiry young kid he encountered 20 years ago. When Shoaib bowled the fastest delivery on record in the 2003 World Cup, a 20-year-old Jimmy Anderson took four for 29 as England defeated Pakistan by 112 runs.
“Mr Anderson, you played against me in 2003 and spoiled my day! When I broke the record, you annihilated us in that game … ruined my happiness! He’s a brilliant guy and it will be fantastic to see him bowl in Pakistan again. It’s been nearly 18 years since he was here and now he’s back again and his bowling looks as virile as ever!”
Shoaib’s passion for fast bowling is undimmed. “My doctor asked me recently: ‘Shoaib, you are in so much pain right now. Tell me one thing. Was it worth it?’ I said: ‘Doc, every minute of it. It was so worth it.’”