The leggie trapped in a slogger's identity
For most of his cricketing life, Shahid Afridi has had to contend with impossible expectations.
After he smashed a new record for the fastest century in his very first outing at the crease, he was expected to do an encore each time he went out to bat. When he finally began concentrating on his legspinners and variations, he was expected to run through every batting line-up. After he took over the limited-overs captaincy, it was thought he would transform the team into a stick of dynamite. These are burdens that would have crushed any lesser mortal. Afridi has taken them in his stride.
Much of this has to do with his DNA. The Afridi tribe originated from brutal mountainous terrain overlapping Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even today, the name evokes ferocity, daring, and fearlessness. Shahid Afridi's approach to cricket has been nothing short of tribal warfare. Background, context, and meaning are pushed to the periphery. It's all about the immediacy of the challenge, the moment of conflict, the act of confrontation and battle.
It is an attitude that has carried him far. Afridi's 36 international Man-of-the-Match awards place him tenth in the overall list, ahead of the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Chris Gayle, and Muttiah Muralitharan. In T20Is, he has collected more match awards (seven) than any other cricketer - proof of his match-winning abilities.
He has hit more sixes in international cricket than anyone else, with no threat of being overtaken anytime soon, and has the the highest stike rate (by a distance) among players who have batted in at least 50 innings. In the list of fastest ODI hundreds, his name appears three times in the top seven; in the list of fastest ODI fifties, he appears five times in the top 12. He is eighth in the all-time list of most ODI wickets, ahead of Shane Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq, and behind only Akram and Waqar Younis from Pakistan.
He has a nose for the big moment. In 2009, Afridi lifted Pakistan to the World T20 title, with Man-of-the-Match performances in the semi-final and final. In 2011, he motivated a scandal-weary side to the semi-final of the World Cup, and could well have taken them beyond had his team-mates snapped up any one of Sachin Tendulkar's four chances in Mohali.
Yet for all his achievements, Afridi remains a terribly misunderstood and polarising figure. In the eyes of many Pakistan supporters, he is overrated, overhyped, and irresponsible, which is astonishing. Captains and coaches have invariably struggled with his stubbornness, and administrators have certainly never come to terms with his irrepressible independent streak. The previous PCB chief irked him so much that Afridi announced his retirement; the current one remains wary of him and has gagged him from talking to the media.
While there is also a large constituency united in blind adoration for Afridi, their intense devotion is inspired not so much by Afridi's match-winning ability or all-round repertoire as by his propensity for batting pyrotechnics. For this segment of the fan base, if Afridi gets out early, the known universe might as well collapse. It is not uncommon in Pakistan to see entire stadiums emptying out after Afridi has gone cheaply.
The perpetual irony of Afridi's career is that almost everything about him - explosive slogging from down the pitch, leonine prowling between cover and extra cover, moody portrayals in the media - has been a distraction from his authentic cricketing identity as a game-changing wristspinner.
He has a bag of tricks that would make Warne proud: a classic legbreak that heads towards first slip after pitching on middle or leg, a topspinner that jags up viciously from a length, a googly, a finger-spun offbreak that comes out of the blue, and a straight fast ball, hurled with the seam up. Wristspinners are supposed to be enigmatic and mysterious, but Afridi embellishes the art with threatening body language, combative appealing and hostile eye contact as only Afridi can.
It took a while for even Afridi to understand his true forte. Called up from the Pakistan Under-19s touring West Indies in late 1996, he earned national selection as a legspinning replacement for Mushtaq Ahmed, and in his first ODI innings he got to a hundred off 37 balls. This talent for clearing the sightscreen fetched him instant renown and made him a regular in the side; the legspinning identity was buried. Within two years, his bowling strike rate was hovering near 70, and his international bowling average had ballooned to over 54.
It's taken repeated batting disappointments and visceral revulsion from the fans over the better part of a decade for Afridi to finally embrace the bowler inside him. His bowling strike rate is now in the low 40s, and his international bowling average has come down to under 32. With such visible success, the fan base has also adjusted. His detractors remain, but they are increasingly marginalised.
Officially 32 years old, Afridi has reached the period when a cricketer begins to edge past his biological prime. Perhaps not so much in his bowling but to some extent at the batting crease, and certainly out in the field, age is starting show. You can tell that retirement - this time for real - can't be too far behind. Yet challenging opportunities are ahead for Afridi - the World Twenty20 in September, bilateral series with the likes of Australia and South Africa, and probably one other multi-nation tournament over the next couple of years.
In a recent media interview Afridi indicated that he has begun to reflect on his legacy. Revealing deep ambitions, he said he wants to be remembered with the kind of reverence that is accorded Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, and Wasim Akram. That may be too far into the stratosphere even for Afridi, but the perch he eventually comes to occupy will be lofty indeed. He has served Pakistan with enormous impact, ability and drive, and he definitely has the star wattage. He will go down as one of the great X-factor players for sure, a tremendously skilled limited-overs specialist - certainly one of the best.
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