Abu Dhabi: When you talk about celebrity sports couples closer home, Shoaib Malek and Sania Mirza have to top the chart — simply because of the way the duo have stood the test of time.
Be it the strength of their relationship or sporting prowess, Shoaib-Sania have complemented each other well and held themselves together remarkably.
Belonging to two nations that are constantly engaged in diplomatic war, their wedding drew wrath from all quarters. Their cross-border marriage must have been the most documented affair in the history of India and Pakistan since they fought three wars.
From threats to call off the wedding, to a woman from Hyderabad (India) claiming Malek to be her husband, the couple took everything on the chin to be together for life.
The celebrity status, however, would do no good in the highly controversial Pakistan cricketing set-up where there is constant battle to keep one’s place and performance is the only way to stand tall.
Malek, too, found himself in danger of slipping into the abyss.
In 2010, Malek was slapped with a one-year ban with seven other players, after his name figured persistently at the centre of a speculation for inciting unrest within the team, following a terrible tour of Australia.
When nothing substantial came to light to ascertain the claims, the Pakistan Cricket Board revoked it.
That didn’t help much as in the same year, after the spot-fixing-marred series against England, Malek, who had nothing to do with that scandal, was dropped from the team for his poor form.
He had only managed a cumulative total of 47 and six in four innings and his Test career looked done and dusted. Malek continued to be part of the ODI and T20 set-up though, but from 2010 to 2013 despite figuring in 29 matches, he didn’t have a single 50-plus score.
His last century knock (128) had come against arch-rivals India in the ICC Champions Trophy at Centurion Park in 2009.
Eventually following poor scores of zero, eight and 17 against West Indies, South Africa and India respectively in 2013 Champions Trophy in England, Malek lost his place in the ODI set-up as well.
It was a difficult phase but as professional athletes, Sania too had experienced such dips in her career and had been out of action due to injuries. Their demanding, living-out-of-a-suitcase schedule, had forced them to choose Dubai from the beginning as a perfect transit location for some solace and quality time together.
Egged on by his wife, who was by then leading by example with her perseverance, Malek too hung in there — trying to make most of whenever opportunities came by. “The five year period wasn’t easy and though you are playing around the world, you are still not playing for your country. I missed playing for Pakistan but the credit goes to those leagues as well. I learnt a lot from there,” said Malek in an exclusive interview to Gulf News.
“I didn’t grab the chances that I got in between to play for the national team but the lifeline was playing in those leagues and making sure not to miss domestic cricket back home.”
As the 2015-16 season became a career-defining year for his wife Sania, where she shot to the No. 1 spot in the doubles ranking in partnership with Swiss ace Martina Hingis, Malek also found light at the end of the tunnel.
He was recalled to the Test squad after five years to add stability to the middle order with Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan’s retirements looming.
A mammoth innings of 245 against England in Abu Dhabi followed, heralding Malek’s return to the Test arena to re-establish himself in the squad.
After that double ton, he was all praise for his wife saying that her phenomenal run of form had “definitely put some extra pressure” on him and had also “pushed him to work harder”.
The single knock would have been enough for Malek to carry on for long, but he choose not to and called it a day from the longer version after figuring in the remaining two Tests of the same series. The move to call it a day after five agonising years of toil to get back into reckoning took everyone by surprise. But a matured Malek, who had weathered everything that life had thrown at him, had made up his mind. He selflessly gave his spot to nurture the upcoming talents like the Babar Azams and the Haris Sohails.
After the brilliant knock of 81 off 61 balls in the first ODI against Sri Lanka in Dubai in the ongoing series, he reiterated that the move was purely to focus on the ODIs and the T20s.
“I spoke to everyone whom I have been close with. Mushtaq bhai (Ahmad), Waqar bhai (Younis) as they were the coaches at that time. Five years was long break and I was not even close to playing 50 Test matches. I thought we had a set team with youngsters like Babar Azam and Haris Sohail coming through, so I felt it was right time,” said Malek, whose batting average in ODIs simply sky rocketed in 2015 after he hung up his boots in the Tests.
In eight matches, he accumulated 339 runs including a century and two 50 fifties at an average of 84.75, from what had dropped to a mere 17.23 in 2013.
With the departure of Shahid Afridi and Misbah, Malek is now the seniormost member of the team and an integral member in Pakistan’s ODI and T20 setup. He is the only other active player apart from Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath who has played even in the 90s.
“Yes I had started my international career in the late 90s but I think if I had played in those five years I missed, probably I wouldn’t have been playing now. You don’t know what can happen in cricket, you just have to be strong.”
Malek adds stability and depth to the Pakistan middle order. His vast experience has be invaluable to the team and has helped in the smooth transition of power to captain Sarfraz Ahmad from Misbah.
He is now been looked up on as the mentor and the board too have shown a lot of faith in him. He was entrusted with the responsibility of settling the tainted Mohammad Amir back in the set-up and guiding the speedster to regain his lost pride.
There is tremendous respect for Malek within the team and it was evident the way the side grew in confidence with every match to attain the Champions Trophy glory earlier this year.
After the first-match loss against India, it was Malek who really opened up in the dressing room and roused the team spirits with his motivating speech. There was no looking back for Pakistan from then on and they beat India in the finals. He, at the age of 35, also leads by example when it comes to fitness and is certainly one of the best of the lot.
“Cricket has changed a lot and fitness is the key. I realised that in those five years. If you are fit, you can be consistent and I think all that hard work is paying off now.”
Malek’s next goal is already set and there won’t be any surprise retirements calls. He has already announced: “As far as ODIs are concerned, I want to play the 2019 World Cup. I will definitely be giving it a try.”
Born: February 1, 1982, Sialkot, Punjab (Age: 35 yrs)
Batting style: Right-hand middle order bat
Bowling style: Right-arm offbreak
Test debut v Bangladesh at Multan, Aug 29-31, 2001
ODI debut v West Indies at Sharjah, Oct 14, 1999
T20I debut v England at Bristol, Aug 28, 2006
Format Mts Inns NO Runs HS Ave SR 100 50 Ct
Tests 35 60 6 1898 245 35.14 45.67 3 8 18
ODIs 254 230 36 6857 143 35.34 82.08 9 40 90
T20Is 89 83 23 1719 75 28.65 116.70 0 5 36
Total 378 373 65 10474 245 34.00 74.91 12 53 144
Format Inns Balls Runs Wkts Best Ave R/o 4w
Tests 43 2712 1519 32 4/33 47.46 3.36 2
ODIs 201 7631 5922 154 4/19 38.45 4.65 1
T20Is 42 498 576 25 2/7 23.04 6.93 0
Total 286 10841 8017 211 4/19 37.99 51.37 3
- Mohandas Menon