COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Pakistan paceman Shoaib Akhtar will retire from international cricket after the World Cup, bringing an end to one of the most colorful careers in the sport.
"I have decided to say goodbye," Akhtar, reading from a statement, told a news conference on Thursday. "This World cup is my last and the coming matches in the tournament would be last few of my international career."
Akhtar, who made his international debut in 1997, is regarded as one of the fastest bowlers ever to play the game. But his career has been plagued by injuries and fitness problems, a doping controversy and even court battles with the Pakistan Cricket Board.
After a nearly three-hour training session, during which he told his teammates of his decision, Akhtar arrived at a news conference smartly dressed in black trousers, gray shirt and black coat to announce his retirement.
"I would have loved to continue, but I must make way for the youngsters to take over," Akhtar said, then added dramatically: "With this announcement it feels like it's my first death."
Pakistan plays defending champion Australia at Colombo on Saturday in the last match in Group A. Both teams have already qualified for the quarterfinals but the top position in the group will be at stake.
Akhtar's 13-year career has taken many twists.
And perhaps that was the reason that the controversial fast bowler could play only 46 test matches — for a haul of 178 wickets — and 163 limited-overs internationals, for a return of 247 wickets.
"In my entire career I've had many differences but countless victories," Akhtar said. "I have made a lot of friends and won't hesitate to say some misunderstood me. I can't say I have any regrets, it's been an excellent run."
Akhtar was selected for the World Cup despite struggling with his fitness in the two years since knee surgery in Australia.
"I've decided this moment about two years back when I was going through my knee surgery for the fourth time," Akhtar said. "I made that decision on the bed that I am going to play this World Cup and I am going to play the part as much as possible for the Pakistan team."
The International Cricket Council banned three Pakistan cricketers — Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir — for a minimum of five years last month after they were found guilty of spot fixing during the test match against England in August 2010.
Knowing Pakistan needed reinforcements, the bans were extra motivation for Akhtar to return — for one last time.
"When the news broke out.... I felt that I should be able to help Pakistan, should be able to concentrate on my fitness, get back in the side," he said. "But I must make way for youngsters to take over."
Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi said Akhtar would be remembered as a bowler who gave his best for his country.
But Akhtar's performance has been mixed in the tournament so far.
He went wicketless against Kenya but got two important wickets against Sri Lanka and one against New Zealand before he was rested for the games against Canada and Zimbabwe.
His last over in the 110-run loss to New Zealand went for 28 runs when Ross Taylor hit the paceman for three sixes and two fours.
Akhtar was not sure whether he would be part of team management's plans for the remainder of the World Cup in which the 1992 champion are sure to play at least two more matches.
"I have no idea whether I would be playing or not, but I will double my efforts if given an opportunity," he said.
Pakistan team management fined Akhtar for breaking a team curfew when the team played two World warmup matches in Bangladesh last month.
Pakistan team manager Intikhab Alam said Akhtar was fined another $2,000 for several disciplinary offenses since the team arrived in Sri Lanka to play its six group matches last month.
"I can't reveal you the details of the offenses but I can confirm that he has been fined $2,000," Alam told The Associated Press. "These sort of fines are internal affairs of the team which we can't go public."
Alam was impressed, however, with the manner of Akhtar retirement announcement.
"He has done a fantastic job for Pakistan and bowled his heart out," he said. "We feel sorry for him on this day but he chose a graceful way."
Alam said the Pakistan team clapped and thanked Akhtar for his contributions when he broke the news to them.
"We need characters like him on the field," Alam said. "Akhtar spoke to the teammates for five minutes and everyone thanked him for his contributions."
Pakistan skipper Shahid A
"We feel sad for him as he has been a very nice teammate and we would always remember him as someone who always tried hard for the team and every player thanked him," Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi said.
Akhtar's most notable offenses in a long career came in 2006 when the PCB pulled him out from the Champions Trophy after he was tested positive for the banned substance nandrolone along with fellow fast bowler Mohammad Asif during an internal doping test.
A PCB tribunal banned the fast bowler for two years but it was later overturned.
He was also fined 7 million rupees ($82,500) in 2008 despite managing to win a court case against PCB's five-year ban for publicly criticizing the board's policies. The court upheld the monetary punishment of the PCB.
On the brighter side, Akhtar said there were two memorable days over the last 13 years. The day he made his test debut in front of his home crowd; bowled Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar off successive deliveries during the Asian Test Championship match at Kolkata in 1999. That dismissal was Tendulkar's only golden duck in an illustrious test career.
"The best moment was when I got the first kit for my first test and I had a huge star (Pakistan team logo) on my chest," he said. "I wore that kit and I slept in that kit for three days."
Former Pakistan test cricketer Sarfraz Nawaz also commended Akhtar's contribution to the game.
"It's an honor for Pakistan that we had a bowler who bowled the fastest delivery in international cricket," Nawaz told the AP in a telephone interview. "He has scared so many batsmen around the world with his lethal pace that it's hard to count all of them."
Akhtar clocked 100 mph (161.6 kph) during the 2003 World Cup match against England at Cape Town. He nearly touched his eight-year-old mark when he bowled at 159.9 kph during the Group A match against Sri Lanka in Colombo last month.
Ramiz Raja, another ex-test captain, also preferred to remember Akhtar for his onfield exploits.
"I would like to remember him as a tearaway bowler who with his strike rate was a match winner on his day," Raja said. "Sadly because of his fitness he had to take this decision but he battled through injuries and controversies with a lot of heart."