Pakistan had a largely forgettable start to their seven-week tour of New Zealand yesterday, losing by five wickets in a largely one-sided opening Twenty20 encounter at Auckland. Most of the players appeared to be tired or jet-lagged, and the performances were lacklustre.
The one bright star for Pakistan was yet again Shoaib Akhtar. His three wickets in his first three overs were the highlight of the afternoon for Pakistan.
Though the figures do not reflect it, Shoaib was not only the best bowler on display from either side; he was also, surprisingly, the most committed Pakistani player in the field. Certainly, he appeared to be the only one who was truly up for a fight.
This match was the latest, and quite small step in Shoaib's long road to rehabilitation and redemption.
Once the enfant terrible of world cricket, he has aged well. Not only is he using the experience and cricketing experience of his previous 13 years playing for Pakistan, at age 35 he is the team's elder statesman, a leader often relied upon for wisdom and insights by his younger teammates.
The year 2010 has thus seen a remarkable return to respectability for Shoaib. He returned to the one-day international (ODI) side after a 13-month absence, for the Asia Cup in June, and has not looked back since.
He was one of the stand-out performers in the ODI series against England in September; his eight wickets were crucial, but what was more impressive than the on-field exploits were his attitude, will and determination.
In a traumatic time for his team, Shoaib helped unite the players through the force of his personality, leading by example as a senior player.
He was clearly half-fit for most of the series but continued to play and bowl with elan, often in visible pain. He was the best bowler on show from either side.
His example helped Pakistan come back strongly in the series, in trying circumstances, losing out in the final contest to narrowly drop the series 3-2.
Much now is expected from Shoaib in the remaining two T20 contests and the six ODIs in New Zealand.
He has an excellent record in New Zealand, and as the warm, boisterous reception yesterday by the partisan Auckland crowd proved, he is still a huge draw in world cricket.
More crucially, Shoaib bowling will the most potent weapon in Pakistan's armoury at the World Cup in February. His pace, bounce and new-ball bursts will be critical on the otherwise placid wickets of the subcontinent.
Despite his advancing years, Shoaib is still among the fastest bowlers in the world, and on his day, the fastest. He still has the ability to deliver sustained hostile spells and this from a reduced and shortened run-up. Not many 35-year-old men are still bowling at 145-150kph after more than a decade in the game. In fact, not many 25-year-old cricketers can manage such pace.
Come the World Cup, Shoaib's unexpected resurgence could be one of the more compelling stories in the tournament. A year or two ago, his commitment to the team and to the cause was always in doubt; yet now, in the twilight of his career, he has turned himself into a model professional and solid team man. He has always been an individualist, but also, in many ways, a perfectionist.
Most cricket observers and fans believe that quality pace bowlers are essential to sustain a meaningful contest between bat and ball. Fast bowlers are also the game's best showmen and often its most colourful and charismatic characters.
Shoaib is more colourful and charismatic than most. His example is bound to excite and inspire a new generation of youngsters everywhere to take up this art.
He is a throwback to the golden era of "proper" fast bowlers in the 1970s and 1980s - the era of Holding, Roberts, Croft, Thomson and Lillee.
That was the age of raw pace, of lengthy run-ups, an in-your-face demeanour and sheer aggression by the game's fast men.
Sadly for armchair cricket fans, few bowlers of that type are still playing the game, aside from Shoaib. Today's bowlers are manufactured and coached to the extent that the raw energy and passion is all but sucked out of them.
While Shoaib might not be as effective as South Africa's Dale Steyn or as artful in his mastery of swing as England's James Anderson, he has that same star quality. Among recent cricketers, Andrew Flintoff had it, as did Shane Warne, of course, but very few since. World cricket needs Shoaib Akhtar. It is to be hoped, he is not one of the last of a dying breed.