Jon Coates, The Scotsman
At some point, most groups of high-flying sportsmen will have to deal with disgrace. When the misery of guilt and shame is accentuated by a cloud of suspicion the size of a small planet, the sufferers could be forgiven for going home, closing the blinds, unplugging the phone and digging for the nearest hermitage. Pakistan's cricketers have been through the ringer since the night they shamed by a nation and lost a friend. Yet here they are in Scotland, and talking.
Shoaib Akhtar wasn't in Jamaica when his team-mates lost a World Cup match to Ireland, tried to sleep through the nightmare of elimination then awoke to learn of the death of their coach in an adjacent hotel room. He didn't have to deal with the sinister onslaught of innuendo and accusation that compounded their sadness over the tragedy over the next three months, until the Bob Woolmer murder inquiry was rendered invalid. But the bowler already knew as much as anyone on the Caribbean trip about disgrace, castigation, alienation and grief.
Banned variously for throwing, ball-tampering, abusing a rival player and allegedly taking steroids, life has been one long melodrama for the man with the moniker Rawalpindi Express. The Cassandra Crossing was a 1976 movie about a catastrophic train journey in which the passengers' personal crises lurched as frequently as the coaches. No tale could better analogise the sequence of traumas that have visited Shoaib, whose bowling arm is the fastest to have been recorded and whose familiar brand of tyranny will greet Scotland's batsmen in tomorrow's one-day international in Edinburgh.
Several times the 31-year-old has read and digested his own sporting obituaries. Yet here he is. "It happened to me about four or five times," he said with a wry chuckle when we met in a school sports hall adjacent to the Titwood Cricket Ground, which on Tuesday will play host to the fiercest rivalry in the sport, Pakistan v India. "There are so many controversies I have faced in my life that I'm getting used to thinking that I won't play any more."
It is a good thing Shoaib has adopted a fatalistic bent, for a knife-edge existence remains his lot. His ticket for the plane destined for the World Cup was annulled on the brink of the team's departure. Injury was cited - nothing unusual in that; Shoaib has never offered continuity of selection - but through a theatrical coincidence, Mohammad Asif was scratched from the squad due to injury at the same time. Both had been banned by the Pakistan Cricket Board for the use of drugs last October, then acquitted within two months. The World Anti-Doping Agency is to investigate that decision, and when Pakistan's doomed charter left Lahore for the West Indies, neither bowler had been tested to check if the nandrolone that saw them banned was still in their system.
Shoaib didn't want to talk about the World Cup in Pollokshields the other day but he is old and wise enough to know he had to. The nation's agitation remains so acute, the process of recovery so paramount to the team's visit to these shores. This is a serious, if brief, tour - Tuesday's match purports to raise millions for the British Asian Trust - and these successors to Imran Khan, Javed Miandad and Wasim Akram must make amends for dishonouring their heritage in Kingston. Scotland can expect a new Pakistan - hungry, focused and fit. Heck, they have been training with the Pakistani Army.
"We had a sad departure from the World Cup, obviously. We never cherish the memory any longer, but we are still sad about our coach and whatever happened," said Shoaib. "Having to deal with the Pakistanis leaving in the first round on top of it was terrible, but we would like to put it behind us. Our team is gelled up and it's more important that we just win games now.
"Losing against Ireland … I'm not saying that Pakistan can't lose to Ireland, but the way we departed from the World Cup was outrageous. We have to treat teams with respect. Scotland, Ireland, these are not small teams any more. We always believed, when Bangladesh started, that we were a big team against them but they have proved to be very strong. We are going to take these two games very seriously. We have to build our game up by bowling well, by batting well and by hanging in there."
Now that the enthusiastic, athletic Shoaib Malik has inherited leadership duties from Captain Grumpy, Inzamam-ul-Haq, we can expect very different opponents to the ones who looked a tad languid and rusty 12 months ago, when three or four heroic Scots performances made them toil for a five-wicket triumph. But we cannot apply the adjective "new-look" to the swarthy Shoaib. Injured last summer, he didn't travel but we know him intimately from his 1999 prime, when he blew away George Salmond's World Cup amateurs at Chester-le-Street, and the 2003 National League match at the Grange when, with Durham, he knocked over Saltires batsmen like nine-pins.
"It feels a bit weird to be back playing, but I'm not new to it," he said. "I'm not new to the controversies and the problems I have faced over the years. All my life I have been traumatised by something. Yeah, it's good to be back. It will be nice to go out there, run in and get people out.
"I take each day as it comes now. I've got no further plans in my life - just play as hard as possible, go out there and enjoy it, perform to the best of my ability and win games for my country. I've got a few more surprises left in my body. I've got a couple of fast balls left in me. I think I am definitely going to go out there and just prove it. Prove I can bowl fast. Inzi is history now and we have a new captain who is very friendly. We have such a great team web now. Each one of us likes to help out and be friends. It's like a community."
Ominously for Scotland and India, whose World Cup exit was a slightly milder debacle, Shoaib's confidence in the powers of resurrection is not confined to his own game. "This is the best bowling attack in the world," he said of his alliance with Asif, Umar Gul, Mohammad Sami and the leg-spinner, Danish Kaneria. "Other teams don't have the same luxury of fast bowlers. We all need to go out there and bowl as fast as possible, enjoy the track, enjoy the bowling and just win. I'm ready for it."
Throughout the conversation the famed paceman had been leaning back on a chair propped against a table laden with teapots. At the end, he leapt up and braved the rain to jog a solitary lap of Titwood. "It's a great climate here," he smiled, pasting back a head of obedient hair. "I'm just used to it, mate. I'm a big English weather fan and Scottish weather fan. I like cold, so I have no problems with it. The ball will swing a lot, especially the white ball, and it's good for us. We just need to win. We really need to win."
The suspicion is that more than one team this week will find that primal level of desperation difficult to repel.