It was pre-cable days for us and I was still stuck with Doordarshan. At first, when I heard the score, Pakistan were 200 around the 20th over mark. I actually mistook the score for 120 and thought it was a very good score. Seconds later, once I did the calculation again, I was blown away. This was not normal by any standards. In those days, this was phenomenal by any margin. Pakistan were scoring ten runs an over for almost 20 overs! Then I started following the match through news updates. It was too dramatic for something like that to happen in the 90s.
Shahid Afridi, the leg spinner peaked late but the batsman came to party early. Way too early in the 90s. His entire career has been a course correction after that.
I have often wondered, what his career would have been if he had just been an equal or better Test match bowler than fellow spin bowler, the great Pakistani leg-spinner, Mushtaq Ahmed. Early on, he wasn’t half of the bowler he is now. His faster delivery was borderline chucking and he sometimes bowled off-spinners to get more variety out of his bowling. With a minimal action and hint of flamboyance, as he took his jump in the delivery stride, he always hurried the batsmen. Both, by rushing in to bowl as well as with his fast-ish flat deliveries which drifted in the air. In a way, he is totally the antithesis of being a leg-spinner. While a Warne will pause, ponder and outthink a batsman, Afridi bowled like there was no thought process in bowling the next delivery. He just went there and bowled.
When Mushtaq was injured in 1996, an apparently sixteen-year-old leg-spinner was called to replace him in the Four nations Sameer Cup which was held in Kenya. Among others, the tournament had the red-hot team of Sri Lanka, the 96’ ODI World Cup winners and their duo of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. In all probability that tournament would have been about them exploding in Africa but as fate would have it, we got explosion nonetheless but of a different kind.
Afridi did not bat and went wicketless in his debut match against Kenya. He bowled a decent spell of 0-32 in his quota of ten overs but considering the opposition, it was nothing sensational.
It was the second match that was about change his and Pakistani cricket’s fortune. For better or for worse, Pakistan’s future took a dramatic turn with the events that unfolded at the Gymkhana Club Ground, Nairobi on 4th October, 1996.
Put in to bat first, Pakistan had a reasonably decent start but before losing the wicket of Salim Elahi. But for some strange reason, Pakistan took a cue from Sri Lanka and decided to use Shahid Afridi as a pinch-hitter and floated him up the batting order to No. 3. The blitz by Sri Lanka in the opening overs on their way to a famous win against Australia in the 96’ One Day Cricket (ODI) World Cup, had changed cricket and batting forever. With two pinch-hitters, Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana, opening and taking advantage of the field restrictions very successfully, the idea, and particularly the execution, allowed other captains to start tinkering with the idea of a pinch-hitter at the top of the batting order.
Perhaps after one such afterthought, Afridi joined Saeed Anwar at the crease and sensationally smote 11 sixes on his way to scoring the fastest ODI century.
Along with Anwar, he fashioned an emphatic win against Sri Lanka. It was sweet revenge for Pakistan in some ways as six months earlier Jayasuriya had scored the fastest ODI century against Pakistan! To score another point or so, Afridi also indulged himself with one over by Jayasuriya where he plundered 28 runs. Even sweeter by revenge standards.
However, the narrative being written was not of the revenge of Pakistan or the World Record or the changing ODI format. The narrative was well and truly about an ODI phenomenon in the making. Shahid Khan Afridi was on his way to become an ODI God for Pakistani citizens and a smattering of populace outside.
The fact that Afridi is still playing (or about to retire? Again?) despite his non-existent batting technique, scored eleven international hundreds and won matches through his batting, is not about his talent. Let’s admit it, Afridi’s batting talent is comparable to the talent of a Humanities student in passing an Organic Chemistry paper. What he has instead, in abundance, is luck and willpower that will ensure he clears the same paper.
I would have said luck only but that alone can’t ensure you play almost a hundred T20 matches and close to 400 ODI matches! It is the same willpower of the energetic and powerful Pathan that has ensured his daredevilry has been rewarded so much on a cricket field and outside. His power to clear the creicket field is undeniable. Very few cricketers can hit the cricket ball as hard as him but you still can’t explain the success of Shahid Afridi. It is like one of those contestants in ‘Big Boss’ who just keep progressing week by week without having any standout qualities. There is no reason for them to succeed but they do and win the jackpot in the end.
Afridi’s longevity shouldn’t be confused with his success as a cricketer. He was really lucky to play in a time when multinational companies were pumping money into the sport and cricket was slowly transcending to the pure entertainment of T20. They realized the popularity of cricket in the sub-continent and Afridi struck gold. They were pushing their sugar water (*cough* Pepsi *cough*) down our throats along with every six that Afridi hit. And boy, did Afridi hit them or what? He is possibly the first cricketer to hit the roof while trying to clear the fence when they were experimenting with the indoor stadiums! And he hit 476 of them. Sometimes, he just willed the mishits beyond the boundary. Such was his presence at the cricket field that nothing else mattered. You wanted Afridi to hit sixes. Even if the situation demanded to drop anchor, there was only one way Lala knew to bat. For him, attack was not another form of defence, it was the only form. Sadly, for his true fans and Pakistan cricket, it was often short of what he could have achieved.
But one thing was sure, Shahid Afridi was fast becoming prime time TV. He was the blockbuster you want to go and see in a stadium. Not the graft and extreme late cuts of Shiv Sundar Das. In a way it is a reflection of what we as a consumer of cricket wanted post the late 90’s boom. We didn’t want the method and graft of a Dravid or a Kirsten anymore. We wanted the madness of Afridi. Afridi kept providing and we were too happy to consume. He will once in a year bat, bowl or dramatically give an all-round performance to keep fanning those fanboy screams which have followed him throughout his career.
Sports lovers have a way of deifying acts of famous sportspersons. And if it comes early in one’s career, sporting derring-do is worth its weight in gold. Most people in India talk about how Sachin hit the great leggie Abdul Qadir for four sixes in an over even before Indian public had witnessed the phenomenal Tendulkar period. Even those who haven’t seen that footage yet, still talk about it as if they were present there. They don’t even care that it was an exhibition match. For them, it was early signs of a great career.
Imagine what happened to Pakistan’s public when Afridi, a leg-spinner promoted as a pinch-hitter, broke the world record of the fastest hundred in an ODI match equaling the record of most sixes! For a cricket crazy nation like Pakistan, he was their Tendulkar. The thing is, they wanted him to be their Tendulkar without one-hundredth of his patience and skill. Afridi however continued playing his cricket. Won some, lost many but he was always watchable while playing cricket. The public wanted him to lead Pakistan and keep hitting sixes and keep taking wickets. For them, a Younis Khan or Misbah Ul Haq, despite being stellar cricketing talents, just won’t do. They needed the flash and glamour of Afridi. As did we, the insatiable public, who kept enabling him despite his continuous failures in converting starts to complete innings. We were happy with the punchlines and never cared about a complete masterpiece.
However, let’s not forget a remarkable feat in this long narrative of Afridi’s career. That feat is the second coming of Afridi, the cricketer. As a very effective and often match winning bowler and a lower order hitter.
I presume, somewhere in his long run, Afridi realized that he just can’t achieve true greatness through batting alone and he switched to the talent he actually had. That of a brilliant leg-spinner, who, on his day, can win matches just by bowling one devastating spell. And surprisingly those days outnumbered his “Afridi ft. batsman” days more. He started looking around, taking a few moments before rushing the batsman. He started thinking. He also started bowling slower, developed a very good googly and had an effective flipper. If you watched him bowl closely, you would be amazed at the amount of drift on the ball he often achieved. And on tracks which aided spin, he was unplayable. Often, he would come in for a short spell and destroy the middle-order or tail-end of a team and win a match for Pakistan. Nothing was more dazzling than watching ‘Peak Afridi’, swiftly in his stride, following his jump with a brutal leg-break or an undecipherable flipper, getting the wicket and raising his arms skywards for his signature ‘Star Man’ pose. Sadly, that aspect of his game is often upstaged by his, more marketing friendly, aimless six-hitting.
And fortunately, he decided to bat deep in the batting order negating the disadvantage he had against fast bowlers when the ball was new and swinging. He wasn’t as effective as everyone had hoped but it could have been worse for him, as an opener. But for these changes to his approach, he was way more effective to Pakistan cricket. He was the man of the series in the 2007 T20 World Cup just by his brilliant bowling. However, nothing had prepared the fans for the slow-building climax that had been Afridi’s entire career, till the semi-finals and the final of the T20 World Cup to be played two years later. A score of 51 in the semi-final as well as a spell of 2-16 in four overs was a remarkable all-round performance to knock out South Africa. And in the final against Sri Lanka, Afridi again hammered a half century to bring home the trophy for Pakistan and drowned many sorrows.
Whatever one may think about his talent and effectiveness as a cricketer, the fact remains that Afridi is an original. The fact that he played his brand of cricket before the idea of T20 was even dreamt of, is possibly the reason he is a true T20 superstar with just 3 short of a hundred wickets and almost 1500 runs and a strike rate of 150. What about his average, you may ask? Who cares? This is T20 and Afridi owns this format. They love him in Pakistan, they worship him in Afghanistan and they surely want him back in the Big Bash League. Sadly, BCCI won’t allow Pakistan’s cricketers in IPL else, you know who will, almost always, get the highest bidding. Err…that will be Yuvraj Singh but you get the drift. He is almost the perfect T20 cricketer. Can hit sixes at will, can win matches with both bat and ball, fields very well and is a crowd-pleaser to boot. Did I mention his looks? If Shane Warne was called Hollywood after his looks, Afridi can appropriately be named “Lollywood” (or Lalawood, if that pleases you more).
One of my favorite things to do when wandering around in YouTube and checking cricket videos is to look for this video.
The six, at 120 meters long, is a monstrosity but what makes the video immensely entertaining is the entire analysis of that shot with Tom Moody famously saying “it’s a 12” and that he has never seen a six being hit into the first tier of the Prindiville Stand at the WACA (no, it’s not MCG as suggested in the title). The analysis for that shot is exactly the reason why Shahid Afridi has survived so long. A six in cricket is the baseball equivalent of a home-run. Well almost. And to hit the maximum number of home runs, one must be really special. Afridi’s age may have been of dispute but his swashbuckling stroke play was never. He will always remain special.
He may announce his retirement soon or yet again surprise us (Pakistani cricket never stops to surprise, does it?) but one thing is certain, I have been entertained by Shahid “Boom Boom” Afridi. Both the batsman and the bowler. Even though most of his records are broken, the spirit of Shahid Afridi and his place in history remains intact. We may not love him more than they love him in Pakistan but some of us do love him a lot.