The cricketer who shaped T20

Shahid Afridi was the perfect T20 cricketer even before people began to realise what that looked like, but time is finally catching up with him

Jarrod Kimber

Shahid Afridi was a prototype for a perfect T20 cricketer © Getty Images

On his face is the same smile you've seen a million times over the last 21 years, the one that shows just how happy he is just to be alive, happy to be out on the field playing cricket. He's about to play a T20 for Hampshire, but smile apart, Shahid Afridi doesn't look the same as he used to.

In English cricket, it's often hard to tell if a player has put on some weight, or just has too many sweaters on. But, either way, Afridi doesn't look his old self. At his best he was lithe, almost catlike. Now he looks every day of his 37, or 42 years. He doesn't move like the super freak of years earlier; he moves like a man just getting out of bed.

But today's smile isn't that much different to the one when Afridi won Pakistan the 2009 WT20 semi-final, with bat and ball, and then won the final, with bat and ball. The image of Afridi standing mid-pitch at Lord's, arms raised, moving his head around like an excited puppy, is the image of T20's first king.

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If you are looking for a bowler for T20 cricket right now, you're probably looking for a fast bowler or a spinner who turns the ball both ways. If you are looking for a batsman, you are probably looking at someone who can strike at over nine runs an over no matter what time they come into the innings. Afridi was this player before we knew what T20 was.

Afridi's critics have always said he's a decent bowler who slogs. Dude, that's like totally what teams want right now.

To many analytics cricket people, Andre Russell is the perfect T20 cricketer. But Afridi was the perfect T20 player before anyone knew what they were looking for. He's a rock as a bowler, completely dominates the middle overs, and if needed can bowl at the top or at the death. And he can bat in any of the 20 overs: Russell hasn't shown as much flexibility batting in the Powerplay.

The biggest problem was that he was ahead of his time. Analytics were barely involved, so no one knew that Afridi was the template of what T20 players should be.

If you look at it on a micro level, Afridi is even better. He was hitting boundaries, especially sixes, when the world was trying to run singles. Well before Chris Gayle cottoned on to the fact that risky singles aren't as high-yield as risky boundaries.

Afridi also batted like all parts of the game were the death, which is where the next big move in T20 will probably come, and in Russell's case, already has. As a spinner, he was incredibly hard to get away, was useful on wickets that assisted him, and is still handy on the ones that didn't due to his constant changes of pace and sudden bounce.

This is just who Afridi is. It isn't something he created, like Sunil Narine or Pat Cummins with their batting; he didn't formulate a T20 bowling career like Michael Yardy. He was just born a T20 natural.

The biggest problem was that he was ahead of his time. Even at that World T20 of 2009, no one was talking about legspin dominating T20, or contesting that a high strike rate early in the innings is worth more than one later on. Analytics were barely involved, so no one knew that Afridi was the template of what T20 players should be.

Those were the T20 dark ages; it was just a bit of fun, the ICC seemed to have a tournament every few months, the IPL was about cheerleaders, the Big Bash was not yet a league. No one understood his real worth because we hadn't even started looking at players' value. We were still talking about averages; the analytics companies hadn't started researching the effects of the ball spinning in or away yet.

Shahid Afridi was just that guy who was either a clown or the greatest hero you'd ever seen. Often in the space of two balls.

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In 2003, Afridi played three ODI matches, his economy rate in those games was over five runs an over. In his 19-year career, that was the only year Afridi went at more than five an over. He has never gone for runs.

He is playing at the Ageas Bowl, home of Hampshire, an English county with an excellent T20 record over many years. But in his previous match for Hampshire, against Somerset, he went for over ten runs an over, and despite a handy 18 off 11, he was, depending on who you speak to, dropped, rotated or rested for Hampshire's following game.

Afridi celebrates with Peshawar in the PSL © PCB/PSL

This one against Kent, he's back, being hidden at short fine leg as Kent got off to a quick start. Afridi doesn't bowl until the ninth over, after up-and-coming legspinner Mason Crane has had an over. There is a small titter from the few Hampshire fans who have braved the cold as he comes on to bowl.

Afridi's first ball is a knee-high full toss; it's only taken for a single. He spends 15 seconds stretching himself, and then he stands at the top of his mark, looks at his field and decides it's all wrong. He changes the shape of it, and straight away the batsmen keep hitting the ball right to the fielders he's moved. His over, which will have two full tosses, goes for only five runs. Afridi limps out to short third man and continues to stretch.

Afridi drops a caught-and-bowled to start his second over. It was completely pulverised by Sam Northeast and it goes to the boundary and very nearly takes a part of his hand with it. Two balls later, Afridi slides one through Northeast and hits his stumps.

It's clear the ball is stopping on the surface a bit, but even with that allowance, the Afridi zip, the magic where his balls seemed to get quicker after they landed, has long gone. Pace-wise, he looks only marginally quicker than Crane.

James Vince, Hampshire's captain, changes the field, and Afridi changes it back; Afridi is right again. His third over has another wicket, a ball that was dragged from outside off to mid-on, and he could have had another if not for a dropped catch. Every time Afridi does anything, the Hampshire Twitter account gets boom boomed by the lovers and haters. This over has brought them all out.

Afridi is taken out of the attack so he can change ends. Jimmy Neesham, Kent's Kiwi allrounder, tries to smack one that doesn't spin and loops to short third man for Afridi's third wicket. And then Afridi tosses one up to Daniel Bell-Drummond, a batsman with England pretensions, and he gets a thick edge out to deep cover, Afridi has four. The Hampshire Twitter manager is under as much pressure as the Kent lower order.

James Vince, Hampshire's captain, changes the field, and Afridi changes it back; Afridi is right again

When Afridi started his spell, Kent were 65 for 1 from their eight overs, eight overs later they have added 58, 26 of them off Afridi, and he has taken four wickets.

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There is no player in the history of the game who has ODI numbers that look more like T20 stats than Afridi. In ODIs in 2007, he averaged 29 with the bat while striking at 161 (and went at 4.6 an over with the ball). Virat Kohli has never struck at more than 157 in an IPL season, AB de Villiers' career IPL strike rate is 148 and even Yusuf Pathan, an Afridi-like player, only has a career IPL strike rate of 142.

Afridi has played in both parts of T20 cricket, the pre-enlightenment entertainment phase, and the early cricmetrics era. The pre-enlightenment time pretty much stopped around 2013, so we can look at Afridi from August 2009 to July 2013. Then the Cricmetrics era starts August 2013 until now.

In domestic T20 of the pre-enlightenment, his strike rate was 164. In the leagues he played in the most, England, Australia and Pakistan, he was miles under the average economy rate when bowling; in England, he was almost two runs less an over. In over 50% of his games he went for less than seven an over. In the 45 innings he bowled out, 43 of them he was under the match economy rate. In that same period he batted 39 times and in 41% of them he scored more than 20 runs at better than the match economy rate.

In the era when we were trying to work out T20 cricket, Afridi had already nailed it. He smacked the ball at a strike rate that was in an ivory tower that was built on a mountain, and no one could hit him off the square.

In the pre-enlightenment, when he was on the field for one of those teams he played for, their win-loss record was 1.44; when he wasn't, it was 1.09.

Afridi is not that player anymore. Whatever his real age, that age has caught up with him. He's a role player now. The teams he plays for now only win .095 times; when he doesn't play, they win 1.37. He is no longer the weapon. As a bowler, he's still more than decent: 87% of the time (down 8%) his economy is better than the match average. He only scores over 20 at better than the match rate 27% of the time now.

But the real truth isn't that he's way worse than he used to be, it's that the game has caught up. His strike rate pre-enlightenment was 164; in the last four years it's slowed to 152 now. Which isn't terrible, except that in that same time the game has sped up. Overall, batsmen have struck more quickly roughly as much as Afridi has slowed.

The shadows are lengthening on a memorable career © Getty Images

Yet even as the Wall Street GMs and analytics factories change T20, up until a year or two ago, Afridi was still an incredible performer. He hasn't evolved much (he hits a few more sixes now), it's just that the game has just slowly started catching up to where he has always been.

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Hampshire seem to be in control of the chase. George Bailey finds some form, and Tom Alsop is intent on batting through the innings. When Bailey is out, they need 38 off 28, and out strides Liam Dawson.

There is no doubt that in a previous era this would have been Afridi walking out. Even in the 2009-13 period, 38 from 28 would have been seen as the kind of chase where you send out a big hitter to try and destroy. Plus, the younger Afridi would have only needed six balls to get a couple of boundaries and ice the game. But T20 has changed, and any batsman is now good enough to get away boundaries. Even without Afridi at the crease, 38 off 28 is no longer seen as hard. Hampshire were still well in charge.

Dawson isn't a dud. He has now represented England in all three formats and despite getting picked as a bowler for England, is actually a batsman. But Dawson isn't a quick scorer, his career strike rate in T20 is 109. He scores a boundary every 11 balls. Afridi hits one every five balls for his entire career (we need a word beyond "elite" for that). Dawson is a 40-off-30 man, and Hampshire need a few quick boundaries as Alsop is 24 off 27 at the other end. Dawson doesn't hit a boundary; he makes four off nine. Hampshire now need 22 from 13 balls.

And out strides… Lewis McManus.

Unlike Dawson, McManus can hit boundaries and hits one every 7.8 balls; he's even hit as many sixes as fours in T20, a sure sign that he gets the way the game is going. And last game he made 34 from 18.

This time it doesn't quite come off for him, though. McManus makes eight from his five balls, with one boundary. Alsop faces the other eight balls and makes seven from them and Hampshire come up short.

Shahid Afridi never leaves the dugout.

Whatever his real age, that age has caught up with him. He's a role player now

Twitter is restless.

"If @SAfridiOfficial came to bat in place of dawson then surely you would win".

"Could I say that was a fixing match?? I just can't believe the result... I will not support hampshire anymore. Afridi plz leave hampshire"

"F***ing batting selections I think u forget that u have shahid afridi."

This season for Hampshire he has made 44 from five innings. He's averaging eight, but worst of all, his strike rate is 104. But being that he is Afridi, earlier this year in the PSL he averaged 25 at a strike rate of 173. With his skills, even in decline, he might go on to have a few more years in franchise cricket if his body can hold together. You wouldn't dare to not bat the old Afridi in a chase like this, but Hampshire dared to not bat him twice.

Afridi has always been a freak, an outlier, something not of this world, but as T20 matures, he's the template. Northants signed Seekkuge Prasanna for the NatWest Blast last year; he's a legspinner who hits the ball very hard. Almost no one outside Sri Lanka knows of him; he hasn't done much in international cricket so far. Northants found him mainly using their Moneyball-based approach, looking for a cheap ideal T20 import. Prasanna hits at a strike rate of 163; his bowling economy is 7.17, both marginally higher than Afridi's. But he is, on paper, the new Afridi. He won't be the last.

All of this happens while Afridi still plays. He has retired almost as many times as he has won Man-of-the-Match awards, and he either loves playing the game or he loves what playing the game brings him. But he is out there, plugging away. Right now Afridi is two things, the ghost of T20's past, and the foretaste of its future.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber