ODI bowling winner February 19, 2010

A leggie returns

Afridi began cricketing life as a bowler and now he seems finally to have come into full bloom as one

Best ODI Bowling Performance

Shahid Afridi
6 for 38 v Australia
first ODI, Dubai

It says much about Pakistan cricket and even more about Shahid Afridi that it took near 10 years for all concerned to settle upon the conclusion that he is actually a specialist bowler. He often said so at the very start of his career but no one really listened. He even took a five-for on his Test debut, the not inconsiderable scalps of the Waugh twins and Darren Lehmann among them, to make the case.

But then he did silly, confusing things, like scoring the fastest-ever ODI hundred in his first international innings, and from one-down at that. He debuted in Tests as an opener and even hit a hundred from there in only his second Test, in India of all places.

He began life as a bowler. He was a quick one at first - and from the looks of it could still, like Thommo, give it a good whang - until he was told that legspin might work out better in mohalla games. Tariq, his elder brother, was meant to be lightning quick, and he has the firmer handshake of the two. Afridi was picked for Pakistan for his bowling as a replacement for Mushtaq Ahmed; he had just taken 10 wickets in an U-19 game against West Indies. Wasim Akram's eyes were among the first to properly assess him, and he had it right: Afridi has a bowler's psyche not a batsman's mindset.

But Afridi the bowler, as we now know him, came into being in August 2004, in a long-forgotten quickie in the cricketing outpost of Amstelveen. In and out of the side before that, with little clarity over his role, he has since been an ever-present, missing just 15 ODIs: the complicit understanding is that he now makes it into the side as a bowler first. Where and how he bats are mostly irrelevant, though everyone still gets in a twist about it. He used to bowl just over six overs a game on average before then, whereas he now bowls close to nine; so vast is the difference in strike rates and averages, it could conceivably be two different bowlers.

The de-hyphenation explains it: before, he used to be run-saving, partnership-breaking or part-time. Now he is unquestionably a strike bowler, a man for wickets in a stretch of the game when wickets are not so likely. Yet his skills are still often undervalued.

Commentators tell batsmen to play him as a gentle medium-paced inswinger, and even if the first picture to come to mind of such a type isn't Mark Ealham, it is an insult. It is drift Afridi gets, not inswing, and only very able spinners get it consistently. The leggie doesn't always spin, but the wrong'un invariably does, and he has a clever, orthodox offbreak as well. The faster one rarely comes out in front of international cameras anymore, but every batsman knows the threat is there. The exception these days is the day where his line and length are off.

There is no orthodoxy in legspin, so we should not be afraid to call Afridi a legspinner. If you go by the personality traits of two of the more successful ones, then Afridi is there. He has the bluster, the bluff and most definitely the bravado. In any case, only two leggies have taken more ODI wickets and only five spinners sit ahead of him in the list (one of whom is Sanath Jayasuriya). Why he doesn't play Tests - and it is his own decision - many have yet to figure out.

Until this career-best against Australia, he had again lapsed back briefly into defensiveness: the three men in the point region to stop the single, the loose short ball. Rust might explain it; in the year leading to this game, he had taken 31 wickets in 22 games, but almost all against minnows. Competition had been missing, and he thrives on it; equally he fails in the heat of it, but he goes at it full pelt.

On a slow, gripping surface in Dubai, he attacked Australia. The key to the spell was the flight, for it was more than Afridi generally gives and with it came quite sharp drift and dip. Three fell driving, two going forward to defend. Only one, Andrew Symonds, went cutting, a most common mode of dismissal for Afridi for he gives less room and more hurry than sometimes batsmen think.

The wicket of Shane Watson, Australian cricket's He-Man currently, was easily the pick. Again there was flight, to which Watson prodded forward, cautious, fairly compact. There was a gap but it still needed the ball to drift in from well outside off, land and break in further to hit off. It did, proof emphatic that the ball is best in Afridi's hand, not coming off his bat and not in his mouth.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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