“Yaar Harbhajan, hum cricketers ko TV pe kya ho jaata hai? We just had this lovely cricketing discussion. But hum jab koi channel me baithe hote hain, hum kyu mukhtalah ho jaate hain? (What happens to us cricketers on television? When we are at some news channel, why are there such differences?)”
Shoaib Akhtar’s previous question to Harbhajan Singh, the interviewee of the day on his YouTube channel, was an innocuous “what will you do tomorrow if you win the toss”. After discussing the art of chasing, spin bowling, batsmanship and probable line-ups for Sunday’s clash, Akhtar dropped the loaded question, and Harbhajan responded without skipping a beat.
“See it depends on who is there. If you listen to my statements, they are never like that,” said Harbhajan. “Political context should be kept separate. But I have always said that my cricketing heroes are from India, from Pakistan. Even from Australia.”
Akhtar pressed some more. “No, this happens from both sides. Why do we play into their hands? Main bas mahaul banana chahta hun, that we can sit with each other and enjoy cricket. Remember when Chennai clapped for the Pakistan team?”
“A part of it is because of the media,” Harbhajan finally broke. “A simple match is scandalised like anything. It should be fun. Two countries come together, sit with each other. Ek dusre ke jaise dikhte ho, ek dusre ke jaise bolte ho. Enjoy the match together.”
Mission accomplished. Welcome to the channel of diplomat-cum-YouTuber Shoaib Akhtar.
The ongoing cricket World Cup has resulted in a free-for-all, with those boasting of even the slightest of cricketing credentials being pinched and seated in a studio or mic’d up for a news channel. Conversations in the commentary boxes and panel discussions in turn have been overtly sanitised, plain banal or simply cringe-worthy.
This is also the first World Cup where the internet has challenged television’s status as the obvious mothership of broadcasting. Star Sports’ streaming platform Hotstar racks up viewers by the millions, and every major media house has a web-exclusive show. Akhtar, a regular at TV panels, jumped ship to YouTube, where he is again melting the speed guns. From terrorising batsmen and rebelling against the authority, Shoaib Akhtar 2.0 now requests his audience to like and subscribe to his channel.
Akhtar started the channel in January — the minute-long teaser shows a borderline-disgusted Akhtar switching off his television sighing: “Kya bakwaas analysis hai yaar” — and grew it to a respectable 80,000 subscribers by late May. With the World Cup, it has gone into overdrive. Currently, it’s at 675,000, outdoing decade-old media houses and sports websites. But this is hardly a case of Akhtar piggybacking off cricket’s biggest event. The relationship has largely been symbiotic.
Much like his playing days, Akhtar has been a wellspring of headlines and clickbait-fodder, with a blunt opinion on everything under the shy sun in the United Kingdom. Sometimes two, contrasting opinions. Akhtar’s most recent Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde routine came last week as news broke of AB de Villiers’ late request to join the South Africa squad.
“Be a man!” chided Akhtar. “Aapne sirf paise ki khaatir apne mulk ko chhod diya. Banda mard ka baccha tab banta hai jab paise chhod deta hai.”
Two days later, on PTV, Lance Klusener nodded along to Akhtar’s changed tune. “Come on! He deserves a chance to make a comeback. You don’t know his finances and economics. What if he needs the money? Why are you forgetting so much he’s done for South Africa?”
Akhtar’s success as a YouTuber is down to tapping into a demographic which almost never tires of cricket discussions and extreme opinions. Former cricketers like Ramiz Raja, Rashid Latif and Aakash Chopra have done it with varying levels of success. But in addition to being a bigger star, Akhtar isn’t afraid to stick his neck out. Calling it as he sees has stopped being a trait, and has become a necessity for the medium. Everybody saw Sarfraz Khan walk out for the toss, but only Akhtar called him the “most unfit Pakistan captain I have seen”.
“Jab toss karne aaya. Itna pet uska nikla hua hai. Itna mota uska muh hai.”
There’s no way of knowing whether the outburst lit a fire under Sarfraz. It sure did wonders for Akhtar. The channel’s daily subscriber growth to that day had ranged from 5 to 15k. Going after Sarfraz and Co got him 68,000 new subscribers in a day.
Barring the stylised, well-produced minute-long teaser for the channel, Akhtar’s videos also have an unrefined, intimate air of listening to a particularly brash friend in his living room. The eclectic mix of Urdu, Punjabi and Hinglish means phrases like “phenta laga dena” have entered the lexicon of subcontinental cricket fans.
Akhtar is at his raconteur best when he narrates snippets from his playing days. Like the backstory behind the 161.3kmph delivery. “My teammates said I was slower than Allan Donald. I couldn’t take wickets at Sharjah. I thought, ye syaapa hi khatam karta hun aaj.”
Another of Akhtar’s shtick is to play the seer. He criticised the Pakistan squad but also did predict that the team will defeat England. He also foretold that out-of-favour Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Aamir will be on the flight to England.
His latest prediction came during the chat with Virender Sehwag. Hosting his motor-mouthed counterpart from across the border, Akhtar went on record saying: “If Pakistan wins the toss and bowls first on Sunday, we will win.”
And during the chat with Sehwag, Akhtar also made known his opinion of KL Rahul. “Bada player hai, but aisa lagta hai ki jagah ke liye khel raha hai.”
Akhtar also tried his statesman routine with Sehwag. “I can say for a fact that no Indian will want Pakistan to crash out of the World Cup right now. I have worked in India for so long. I know that they would want India and Pakistan to face off in a final, or semifinal.”
But Sehwag, a Delhi Jat impervious to the Punjabi charm that worked on Harbhajan, left it well alone. “I don’t think we care what other team is doing. We want India to win. Who’s there in semifinals or finals doesn’t matter.”
Sehwag however did make one admission. “This chat was a lot of fun for me. It’s different when you are on news channels,” said Sehwag. “Ye chat alag hain. Ye direct jaati hain, dil se.”