Valour Unrewarded: Shahid Afridi walks into the sunset
Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi, for obvious reasons, is a warrior. It was reflected in the way he approached the game of cricket – well, at least in the coloured clothing format. He did it for two decades, witnessing the circus that subcontinent powers are well known for in terms of team selection. Always the quintessential enfant terrible of Pakistan cricket, in later years he morphed into somewhat of an elder statesman, and took over the reins of a multi-talented squad with a creditable last-four finish in the previous edition of the World Cup.
One would think that his free-flowing, buccaneering ways, his ability to send the ball into orbit at regular intervals and his devil-may-care, never-say-die attitude merited a far better farewell from One Day Internationals than the one he eventually received – a forlorn, six-wicket defeat at the hands of Australia. When he came out to bat for the final time in the 50-over game, many hoped that he would turn back the clock with another of those brazen innings that characterized his style of play.
It wasn’t meant to be. Neither Afridi nor skipper Misbah-ul-Haq could get the fairytale swansong of their ODI careers. While the latter deserved it for being the fulcrum of Pakistan’s mercurial batting, the former certainly should have had a better end – one fit for a battle-hardened veteran – because he lent power and panache to the green brigade for a long time.
A leg-spinner who became a flamboyant opener
The young Pathan started off as a leg-spinner when he was drafted into the side at the tender age of 16, taking veteran player Mushtaq Ahmed’s spot. But in just his second outing at the international stage, he announced his arrival with the then-quickest century in ODI cricket off just 37 balls. Uninhibited, unfettered and with all the enthusiasm of youth, the pinch hitter demolished the bowlers of the reigning World champions as if they were nothing more than newbies.
He cared little for reputation, and preferred rapid scoring to grafting. There was power in his supple wrists, and nimbleness in his footwork, as he repeatedly danced down the track against the slower bowlers. What Afridi achieved on that day in October 1996 sent out a signal to the rest of the world – here was a young man who was going to smash the opposition regardless of match situations. Here was a Pakistan team that could finally match even the best of teams stroke for stroke with the willow.
Even more remarkable was the fact that pinch hitting, an art pioneered by the Lankans in the 1996 World Cup, was re-defined and perfected by the tall, well-built all-rounder, and his incandescent hitting soon helped in moulding the side to a world-beating, ruthless outfit – even if it was only for a brief while. Boom Boom roared the Pathan, as rival attacks fell to his ferocious onslaughts.
Revelling in the shorter format
Afridi’s liking for the Indian attack of the late nineties and the early years of the twenty first century was clearly evident. The rising star of Pakistan cricket was at his ruthless best against the arch-rivals, inflicting tremendous punishment on them in Karachi and then again in Lahore (despite being overshadowed by Ijaz Ahmed’s finest performance). His second ODI ton served ample proof that he was willing to take the attack to the opponents, and not letting up until he had ground their confidence to powder.
That series in Canada in 1997 (titled the Friendship Series) established Afridi as one of the most destructive batsmen in the world, perhaps even a shade more than the marauding Sanath Jayasuriya. The aggressive approach that stood out in his early days is quite similar to that of a kamikaze pilot: single-minded, focused on complete dominance and annihilation of the enemy.
Like a modern-day swashbuckler, Afridi established a benchmark that was later refined and made even better by the likes of Adam Gilchrist and Virender Sehwag. His batting did have huge risks attached, but the payoffs were immediate, and those brutal innings, coupled with the arrival of tearway quick Shoaib Akhtar & the swift rise of the wily Saqlain Mushtaq, strengthened Pakistan’s position as one of the premier teams in international cricket right up until 2002.
From zenith to nadir he fell
No cricketer is left untouched by the malaise of poor form, and Afridi was no exception. Having made a mark in the Test arena as well with a typical performance – a maiden hundred and a five-wicket haul in his second outing in white flannels – the right-hander experienced the first phase of failure when he flopped with the bat against New Zealand in May 2002. To make matters worse, he also lost his penetrative, wicket-taking ability (something that he later admitted was his strength as a cricketer). He suffered the ignominy of being dumped from the Test team, and would not return to it for almost three years.
The 2003 World Cup brought much pain to a player who prided himself on his superhuman qualities of tearing attacks into shreds. Against the broad blade of Sachin Tendulkar, his leg spinners and mixture of faster ones proved ineffective. Always ready for combat, the warrior-like qualities and fierce competitive spirit of the Pathan resulted in the first of many fines and bans from the game.
Though he did embark upon the redemption path in 2004, smashing the Indians to all corners of Kanpur in his most brutal innings till date, Shahid’s penchant for being at the centre of controversy did not endear him to a large section of cricket fans. Dressing room intrigues, scuffing the pitch in a Test against England in 2005, and many other antics led his supporters to voice concerns that he wouldn’t last much longer based on past performances. The lowest point in a stop-start career thus reached, Afridi seriously contemplated his future in the game.
Renaissance in Twenty20 – from Boom to Boom to Starman
Warriors seldom stay down for long, and the 27-year-old all-rounder was no exception. In the inaugural World T20 tournament in 2007, he re-discovered his magic touch with bat and ball, spurring his team on to a showdown with India at the summit clash. A few months earlier that year, he had ground the South African attack to dust during a blazing innings.
There were signs of a renewal in Pakistan fortunes, with the Starman leading the turnaround via a series of incredible performances, culminating in his side becoming the T20 World Champions in 2009. Now a senior player in the side, Afridi took on the mantle of an experienced warrior, a battle-hardened master strategist and performer.
He also called time on his Test career, citing his lack of temperament in the longest format – a decision that left him free to focus on limited-overs formats. It resulted in a much-wiser all-rounder taking the field, guiding the juniors as well as turning in a series of good, if not great, performances.
In early 2011, he was announced as leader of the pack for the upcoming World Cup. He simply set the stage on fire with his bag of tricks and his buccaneering knocks down the order – often ending those with an inevitable mishit into the fielder’s hands. Captaincy seemed to have brought out the best in him, as his performances helped Pakistan enter the semi finals of the quadrennial event for the first time since 1999.
The unfulfilled dream
Those who live by the sword, also go on to perish by it. In his two-decade career, Shahid Afridi never won a single World Cup title. True to form, though, he didn’t give up one bit. It speaks volumes of the man’s commitment to his nation and his game; if not for his 15-ball blitz against Australia in the quarter-finals today, Pakistan would have had to suffer a worse defeat.
Despite his travails against authority, his brash and combative attitude, and his frenetic yet suicidal knocks towards the end of his career, one must credit the maverick all-rounder for bringing Pakistan cricket back to premier world-beating status in the early decade of the twenty first century. A better ending he deserved, yet all he was left with was more agony, and much in memory for his fans.
Adios, Starman – and thanks for the good times!