Blink. Blink. Blink.
His dark-brown eyes stared forward over the grill of titanium in his rock-hard helmet that made sure that he didn't end up with a broken jaw. Although it was an unlikely injury, for someone who had to watch his side lose a battle in its last hour, withdrawn from the action, sitting on the white linen of a hospital bed, nursing three broken teeth, it was an essential part of the gear. He was the first man in, yet the last man standing, the one who had to guide and protect the other boys towards a hard-earned victory. He had failed that day! The hopes that he shouldered were all drowned in his tears, his apologies lost in the blood-shed caused by the unnatural uprooting of his molars. The doctors managed to bridge his teeth back in, but the gap between a loss and a win was never bridged. Being honest to himself, Shoiab would rather have a second chance to fight that last hour all over again, instead of three insignificant molars.
Shaking his head ever so slightly, Shoiab tried to focus on the current moment; the loss that day and the shattering of hopes throughout the nation, would haunt him every time he geared up, even if it had been for a practice session like this. Staring back at the opponent, who happened to be a close friend, Shoiab tried his best to leave the past behind for the future. Maybe if he tried hard enough now, he would recover quick enough to join the next battle.
His current injury was not a simple one-week hindrance. This one was a much more serious back stress fracture. A common over-use injury for his peers. The therapists had told him that it was one of the hardest-to-overcome injuries for someone of his age. An active vertebral stress reaction, leading to a lumbar vertebral fracture; even the harsh sounding name did not fully express the physical pain it brought. His condition had worsened because of him hiding away from the problem. Having joined the squad of his dreams, Shoiab had expected the training to bring lots of blood and sweat, and thus decided not to complain of the sharp, repeated spasm of fire within his lower back while training. It was only when Niyaz, a senior member of the team heard his stifled moans coming from his room one night, did everyone realize what the poor guy was going through.
Shoiab blinked again, trying really hard to focus on his opponent preparing to charge at him. It was hard to leave behind the daunting memories of watching from the sideline. It was was worse than the loss of life itself. Shoiab jerked his head again. He needed to be focused if he didn't want to end up in the dreary cubicle in the clinic. Yet, somehow his all-padded-up self seemed pretty well-protected, yet maybe, he should not take any risks. The medics are already fed-up with him.
He remembered their 3-hour long lectures, explaining to him how even the slightest discomfort had to be immediately reported to the medical team, as only the fittest are allowed in the front-line. They would not listen to his reasons or his only wish to be allowed to fight. The only thing that mattered in his life was to be the vessel of bringing smiles to the people of his battered nation. Many of them suffered way too many agonizing ordeals, torn apart by war, poverty and natural disasters, and the only thing that united the 173 million nationals of his land was watching him stand in his green armor, the white crescent moon and star emblazoned on it, ready to take on the world. He loved the smiles and cheers and hugs and united prayers his fight for victory brought for his homeland, Pakistan, and he wanted to always provide them a reason to celebrate in these dark times, flying the flag of their freedom high and and proud.
Enough of that! Shoiab told himself. His challenger was prepared to attack, adorning the same green gear as him, a fellow team-mate who had taken the role of hostility to sharpen his skills. But it was the white fire-ball in his hand which was Shoiab's biggest enemy. Just as his adversary let it slip out of his fingers, Shoiab felt a sudden rush in his blood. Adrenaline, he thought, as blood pounded in his ears. The fire-ball was a blur in his vision, inflicting even more panic into his already confused mind. Shoiab bit the corner of his lip.
"A predominantly female instinct!" His captain would shout. "It is so easy to understand that you are scared if you do that. Don't give your weaknesses away to your enemies!" Ahmed Sharif had the same passion for their task as young Shoiab, thus fear of failure boiled his blood as well. "Come on now! Come on, come on, boy!" Shoiab knew this battle cry very well. It was the call of Ahmed in the field whenever he was not sure of something,a clear expression of nervousness of the skipper.
Shoiab bit his lip again; this time, the action helped him control the flurry in his mind. Inching forward on the front-foot, he struck the 'kookabura' hard and straight with his Kashmiri willow bat, opening the full-face of his 38-inch 'sword', and watched with a satisfied grin as the white ball hit the netting around the practice area. Without the obstruction, it would raced to the boundary, unstoppable for any man, bringing four valuable 'runs' towards his team's victory.
Yasir, the bowler, smiled at him. One of his best mates in the team, Shoiab hadn't even realized it was him, due to the hazed conditions of his mind. Shoiab smiled back.
"You seem too happy to have lost! What's the catch?" Shoiab joked, his mind and heart unburdened by being able to play again after six weeks. The back stress injury needed to heal completely before he could play, as the spine's bones would otherwise be obstructed from their self-healing process. The moments spent away from the field were a battle in themselves, and the feeling of being back on the field was hugely relieving.
"It's good to see you back, mere bhai!" Yasir was genuinely happy from heart and soul. Despite the fact that only one of them would make it to the 11 on the field, due to the symmetry of their techniques and roles within the team, Yasir, was not at all bothered by Shoiab's return to the team. "It's great to have you back, my brother!"
"I am not myself, anymore!" Shoiab regretted. Being more experienced, and part of the same team as Shoiab since their camp stages, up through under-14s, under-15s, under-16s, the Pakistan-A Team and now the Pakistan Men's National Cricket Team, Yasir was Shoiab's mentor and personal agony aunt within the team. "I can't take up bowling again till about seven more weeks. What am I without the ball? I am a fast-bowling all-rounder, after all." Being named after Shoiab Akhtar, the man who delivered the fastest delivery, at 100 mph, in history of cricket, and hailing from his hometown, Shoiab Akhtar junior found his identity as a cricketer to be inter-twined with his ability to follow on the footsteps of his idol and namesake, the Rawalpindi Express.
"Ya Allah! And this is the reply for which I accepted a boundary with a smile! Honestly, mate, you are as good with the bat as the ball. You are not a fast-bowling all-rounder! Your are the all-rounder this team had searched for for so long! One who can get runs and wickets at any point of the game and a devil on the field. Don't let what you can't do let you down. Use what you can do to rise you up and above. And till you can shower sparks with the ball, why not let Kashmir Willow do the talking?"
Kashmir Willow, thought Shoiab. Kashmir! The name had such connections to his life that he would trust his life in its hands. His father was an Urdu speaking young Kashmiri military-man, who was transferred to Rawalpindi Cantonment, where he fell for the Punjabi beauty, local-girl Rahima. His sweet little home and his ready-made garments business too was built on Kashmir Road, in the Saddar or Central of the city of Rawalpindi, a business that would have been handed down, father to son, had Shoiab not pursued his cricketing career. Nevertheless, the virtues of Kashmir, the luck it brought, was handed over as an unacknowledged blessing from his father, when he had handed Shoiab his first cricket bat, unaware that it would take away his son from him.
Shoiab continued practicing, aiming to fit for playing in the next match against Sri-Lanka. He would train hard and harder in the following 6 hours, and then only would his restless mind find peace. Then he would treat himself to one glimpse at the jewel-encrusted photo-frame, and speak to the photo which, for him, was the real jewel. The picture that told the whole story of his life.
The old, matted photo had not much value for an ordinary person, but for Shoiab held a lot more meaning. It was the last photograph he had taken of his family, before leaving, aged only 13. No one understood why he had taken the seemingly ordinary picture, not until they found his farewell letter. His father had asked him to stop playing cricket and start working on his grades if he wanted to stay in the house. He guessed his choice was clear enough. Just like the picture, he had volunteered to bring himself away from the happy family.
When Shoiab reached his goal, he would allow himself to be immersed by the picture and live those last moments again. He could remember every detail of that day. His mother wasn't leaning to the right, to the point that she was almost out of the frame, on purpose. It was little Saira's, or Sairoo as she called herself back then, out-stretched hand, which was trying to grab her mother's nose-ring. Seven year old, yet childishly naughty, Shoiab wished he could see how tall she was now. She must be 11 now, as he was 17 now, and might have outgrown her silliness, yet for Shoiab she would always be the seven-year old bandit queen in her frilly pink frock, highly dangerous, yet visibly a honey-bunny.
His eyes would wander over to Shiraz, his the then 11-year old brother, tall and lanky, a complete miniature of himself. He wondered how Shiraz was surviving the local boys, who often bullied the weak, calm and quiet Shiraz. Shoiab remembered the call of one, while running away, when Shoiab had scared them off:
"How long will he protect you? He would run to the big cities as well. Then who will save you? Bhai ka Chamcha! Brother's Subordinate!"
Shoiab madly hoped that Shiraz had now become stronger, or that the others now respected him as he was the brother of an international cricketer. He wished he was proud of Shoiab. Then he could stare hopelessly at his father's face, hoping that one day, he too would be proud of his son. Hoped that he would realize that Shoiab was doing exactly what he had done, only twenty years earlier, because Firoz Akhtar, too, had different dreams from his own father. He didn't wish to join the army, but rather have a peaceful life, running his own business. He was lucky to get a chance to fulfill his dream after his retirement, but Shoiab knew he would not have that chance. Because, unlike his father, Shoiab dreamed of fighting for the country, maybe not on the battlefield, dressed in combat uniform, but in a green jersey, emblazoned with a white star and crescent moon, on the cricket field.