Pakistan's 'Mad Maxes' Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar have matured to lead their strife-ridden team from the front so far in the home series against South Africa in the UAE.
Pakistan's bad boys Afridi and Shoaib step up
DUBAI // One of the great ironies of the most recent crisis to afflict Pakistan cricket is that two players who were once emblems of anarchy have emerged as pillars of responsibility.
Shahid Afridi, 30, and Shoaib Akhtar, 35, have had long and storied international careers, and are equally well-versed in scandal management. Neither was playing in the Test series in England in the summer, when the spot-fixing furore erupted.
When they were parachuted in for the one-day international series which followed, just as Pakistan cricket was looking for some peace, it seemed like an oxymoron. Yet there are signs that age has mellowed the two Mad Maxes.
Afridi was always supposed to be too carefree for captaincy. Yet he has clearly altered his outlook since taking on the burden.
With all the fireworks which followed, Afridi's role in setting some sort of foundation for Abdul Razzaq in the second one-day international have been mostly overlooked.
His 49 was scored in typically rapid time, yet was more calculated than he is usually given credit for.
Where he has failed in the other matches on tour, so have his side, giving credence to his suggestion that when he bats well, his side "definitely win". It is a tough load to bear.
"In any profession, people are under pressure, and I am not just talking about cricket," said Intikhab Alam, the Pakistan team manager. "In professional sport, you are under pressure all the time whether you are performing or not performing.
"In the second match, which we won, he played a very vital innings. He understands that.
"If he can discipline himself and pick the right shots to play at the right times, he can do wonders. He is well aware of that and he is trying his best."
After watching on helplessly as Razzaq torpedoed his side's unbeaten start to their series in the UAE late on Sunday night, South Africa's injured captain, Graeme Smith, offered a reserved response.
"We try to make sure we don't get too up when are winning, or too low when a result goes against us," he said.
Such perspective contrasts sharply with their opponents. When Pakistan then followed up that spectacular win with a two-wicket defeat on Tuesday night, they were suddenly assailed by criticism again.
Afridi just about managed to keep a lid on his frustrations during a terse exchange with some sections of the travelling Pakistan media after the defeat.
"It is really uncalled for: he is the captain and he is doing his best," Intikhab said.
Akhtar may have lost a yard of pace since his pomp, but a fit and firing Rawalpindi Express is perhaps even more vital to his side than at any stage in the past.
His fine new-ball spell in Dubai on Tuesday afternoon was thanks to canniness rather than just raw pace.
"He is a very sensible person," was Intikhab's unique appraisal of Ahktar.
"He is very important for us, especially if he can give us an early breakthrough then we have enough bowling depth that we can restrict South Africa and stop them putting up a huge total."
Today: ODI at Dubai, 3pm
Monday: ODI at Dubai, 3pm
November 12-16: Test at Dubai, 10am
November 20-24: Test at Abu Dhabi, 10am