By the time this column appears, Shahid Afridi would have either decided to put a full stop to a waning international career, which the entire Pakistan expects of him. Or he would have sent another ripple through the ranks by expressing his renewed desire to carry on playing heedlessly.
This is one cricketer who in his pomp carried an aura which unmistakably changed the entire dimension of modern sport. The legacy of this colourful character never went down well with the purists with a penchant for conventional form of cricket.
He was everything from being an arrogant all-rounder to a zealous entertainer. He was a darling of the crowd wherever he played during his best years. He was the first-choice pick for any young kid who used to idolise him. He was certainly a selling dream for some business houses who cashed in on his personality to promote their products.
Can anyone tell whether Shahid Afridi is staying or going? Yes? No? He can’t either!
Refer to him by any name Boom Boom Afridi — as former England captain-turned-cricket broadcaster Nasser Hussain affectionately mentioned him every time Afridi came out to bat — was arguably one of the greatest entertainers to walk on a cricket field.
These days, however, Afridi is rather more suited to be labelled as ‘Doom Doom’ after overseeing a disaster World Twenty20 trip across the border where the green-shirts only succeeded in defeating Bangladesh in their four Super 10 stage fixtures.
The hullabaloo back home is just warming up and culprits have already been identified and are being taken to task. And when that happens changes are inevitable. It’s unusual in the peculiar setup of Pakistan cricket.
Committees are formed to ascertain the causes behind the debacle. The team’s main cast is replaced by another bunch to hush up the protesting noise, but the results remain the same and so does the mindset of those running the show.
Nothing is frankly executed to make a clean break and usher the team into the ‘new era’ under a fresh support staff. Whatever is decided behind the doors by the wise men occupying the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is implemented in words but not practically.
The changing of guards sounds more like a game of musical chairs. Unpretentiously, it revolves around familiar names, many of whom had been there before. While a similar story is about to be scripted in the corridors of power, it’s appropriate to focus on the man who has been a witness to all these comings and goings over a considerable period of time.
Afridi is a rare breed. Whether it were hitting enormous sixes or celebrating wickets with the unmistakable stretched arms, index fingers pointing almost like a music director conducting an orchestra. Controversies never stayed far away and shadowed him more so when he was the captain.
Off-the-cuff remarks have become a habit and passed without the slightest of repentance. His infamous retort in January this year to a Lahore journalist is well-documented. Asked about his dwindling performance, Afridi took the reporter to task by blurting: “Aapse aise ghatiya sawaal ki hi umeed thi [I expected such a crap question from you].”
On the field Afridi embroiled himself in unnecessary fracas on several occasions. During the Faisalabad Test against England in November 2005, he had the courage to scuff the pitch in a bid to help Pakistan bowlers gain unfair advantage over England. He was promptly slapped with a three-match ban plus a warning from the PCB for this bizarre act.
Earlier, the same year, he was drawn into a heated dressing-room argument between vice-captain Younis Khan and captain Inzamam-ul-Haq during the West Indies tour. There were numerous other times during his career when he was in the news for the wrong reasons.
But none of them topped the inexplicable ball-eating (errr, ball-biting) infraction Afridi committed as captain as Pakistan were heading for a 5-0 thrashing in the one-day series against Australia in January 2010. The eagle-eyed Channel Nine crew filmed the whole episode at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
The beleaguered skipper subsequently admitted guilty to the charges of ball-tampering and was banned for two games before PCB did its bit by fining Afridi heavily and putting him on a six-month probation.
When Ijaz Butt, who was the PCB chairman then, banned senior pros, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan for infighting along with several other members of the squad, Afridi — after much persuasion by Ijaz Butt — reluctantly accepted the Test captaincy for the tour to England that included a two-Test offshore series against Australia.
But after Pakistan had won the first match against the Australians at Lord’s, Afridi dropped a bombshell by immediately announcing his Test retirement, saying he lacked the temperament for playing the long form of cricket.
He was officially withdrawn from the Test squad and Salman Butt was installed as the captain. Afridi added another twist to this story after Salman, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif were caught in the spot-fixing scandal and suspended by stating he might return to Test cricket if the team needed him!
However, Afridi stuck to his guns and never played another Test. Curiously for someone who loves the gimmicks and glamour associated with limited-overs cricket, Afridi had a decent Test career. Who can ever forget the second-innings 141 he made as an opener in only his second Test on a turning track in Chennai in 1999 to turn the tide in Pakistan’s favour.
His Test debut was also memorable when he grabbed a five-for against Australia at Karachi in October 1998. Among his victims were the Waugh brothers, Mark and Steve, who both perished in the space of three deliveries in that same Afridi over.
But Afridi chose to maximize his limited-overs life shelf by limiting his Test presence to just 27 appearances.
It was, indeed, one-day cricket which initially brought Afridi into the international limelight. He was touring West Indies with the national under-19 side when an SOS call from the Pakistan senior team was made to Afridi after Mushtaq Ahmed had been injured during a quadrangular series in Kenya. Since he was known for his leg-spin bowling in those days, he was assumed as a straightforward replacement for Mushtaq.
But little did the cricketing fraternity know then what was going to transform the game. A tornado called Afridi, unknown to all, was heading from the Caribbean to the Kenyan capital Nairobi. The very first time he batted he instantly became a household name. A name, that even those who have nothing to do with cricket at all, came to remember forever.
Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi — born on March 1, 1980 — is from the lineage of the famed Afridi tribe who are a dominant force in Khyber Agency with a rich and proud history. He is arguably the most recognisable face of Pakistan cricket since Imran Khan retired from the sport. Like Imran, Afridi, too, carved a niche for himself despite underachieving statistically.
During his prime years, bowlers around the globe feared him more than any other big hitter of a cricket ball. The vast number of 476 sixes that Afridi thrashed in all three formats of international cricket comfortably cleared the playing arena.
His 351 sixes in 398 One-day Internationals are a world record by a long distance and unlikely to be surpassed just yet. And only Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Wasim Akram and Imran Khan have hit more sixes for Pakistan in the Test arena than Afridi’s 52.
But Twenty20 is the form Afridi adores more than anything and was the reason behind title-winning feat in 2009 when England hosted the World Twenty20. Pakistan’s talisman was the inspiration for Younis Khan and his charges with half-centuries in the semi-final and the final. Not surprisingly, the mushroom of professional leagues in the modern era attracts him and some of the franchises readily pounce at opportunities to sign Afridi up even though he is in the twilight zone as a player.
Over the years most of us have become used to his ability to play to the gallery. The expatriates living in the Gulf love the man to the core. The moment Afridi gets dismissed, they start to thin out from the ground even if they are partly entertained. For them whether Pakistan win or not doesn’t mean anything. They throng the place just to see their favourite star bludgeon the ball as hard as he can.
There was never any doubt that Afridi has come a long way since he sensationally hurried to a then world record 37-ball century the very first time he batted in a ODI. Picked as a leg-spinner, he was just playing his second game for the country.
Promoted to No 3 as pinch-hitter, Afridi smashed a hapless Sri Lankan attack, which included Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas, to all parts of the small Gymkhana Club Ground in Nairobi. It was the fourth of October in 1996 when at the tender age of 16 years and 217 days, Afridi strode out to the middle with a bat, reportedly, borrowed from team-mate Waqar Younis.
No less than 10 sixes flew out of the ground and into the adjacent car park from the baby-faced youngster. There were just six fours in a dramatic scoring sequence that read as follows: 0,6,1,0,4,0,0,6,0,0,6,6,1,1,6,6,2,6,4,4,0,0,6,6,1,4,1,1,0,4,1,6,0,6,0,2,4,1,0,0.
His blistering hitting obliterated the one-day world record held by Sanath Jayasuriya who six months earlier had blasted a 48-ball ton against Pakistan on the relatively small Padang Ground in Singapore.
In all, Afridi scored 102 from 40 balls that day out of a second-wicket partnership of 126 with that elegant left-hander Saeed Anwar, who himself made a sedate 115 off 120 balls.
That feat proudly stood for more than 18 years until New Zealand all-rounder Corey Anderson displaced Afridi from his perch by one ball on New Year’s day in 2014 when he registered the century against the West Indies at Queenstown in 36 deliveries.
Subsequently, A.B. de Villiers has snatched the record from Anderson after just over a year by galloping to his hundred against the West Indies at Johannesburg in just 31 balls in January 2015.
As a bowler, Afridi was unique in every sense. He was neither the traditional type as a leggie who spun the ball viciously, nor did he have variations that were the hallmark of an Abdul Qadir or a Shane Warne. More often, he banked heavily on the drift rather turn to outfox the batsmen facing him.
Moreover, Afridi lacked the ability to slice through the opposition batting both in ODI and T20; playing more matches than the number of wickets he took in the two formats — 395 wickets in 398 ODI appearances and 95 in 98 Twenty20 Internationals.
Afridi’s most profitable year was 2011 during which he scalped 45 victims in 27 games, 21 of them during the World Cup staged in spin-oriented conditions of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India. He was the joint top wicket-taker with Zaheer Khan, although the Indian seamer had played one game more.
There were a number of unforgettable moments. The 46-ball ODI century in Kanpur that spurred on Pakistan to turn a 0-2 deficit into a 4-2 series in India was one major highlight among them.
There was one major drawback though. Afridi never delivered as a batsman on the biggest stage, the 50-over World Cup. His highest score was 37 — against Zimbabwe at The Oval in 1999 — in 27 matches during which he accumulated just 325 runs at 14.13, compared to his career tally of 8,064 runs at 23.57.
He returned a much respectable average — 26.63 — with the bat in his 38-match tenure as ODI captain with two of six one-day hundreds coming as the skipper.
Afridi was never considered a first-choice captain, but still managed to lead the country in one World Cup and two World Twenty20 assignments.
He was only confirmed as Pakistan skipper for the 2011 World Cup a few days before the competition began. Speculation mounted that the PCB chief Ijaz Butt was inclined towards Misbah-ul-Haq as the main man for the mega event.
Later on it was a major surprise, when Afridi was announced as Pakistan captain for the 2016 World Twenty20 as early as September 2014. Better sense was definitely amiss. Perhaps, the man himself didn’t have the trust of his employers and wanted a straight answer from the appointing authority.
Some say political interference played a key role in Afridi securing the captaincy an unprecedented 18 months before the tournament. Whoever was behind the move must have had a deep insight into the game and exactly knew then that Afridi would be still around to carry the mantle!
Cynics argue that Afridi should have honourably quit playing T20 Internationals after Pakistan had exited at the 2014 world event in Bangladesh before completely retiring from international cricket at the 2015 World Cup.
As time testified, Afridi, by his own admission, observed he didn’t have in him anymore the urge to captain the country. This assessment earned praise from former Australia captain Ian Chappell.
A respected analyst, writer and commentator for many years now, Chappell lauded the beleaguered Afridi for being honest.
“I don’t think it was doing him any favours giving him the captaincy because he is one of those sorts of erratic geniuses you never know what you’re going to get next. I’m not sure if that’s the right temperament for captaincy,” was the Australian’s assertion.
Whether right or wrong, Afridi has served Pakistan cricket for a long time and that sort of service and contributions from the man should be acknowledged and respected.
He played the game to entertain all and sundry all over the universe. Probably, his biggest mistake was not quitting when the time was ripe and he was at the top of his game.
If he decides to continue at the international level, that will be the bleakest moment in Pakistan cricket. A decision Afridi will regret for the rest of his life.