Afridi's mysterious freakery
Shahid Afridi: winner, best ODI bowling performance of 2013
Drift, I'm beginning to think, is not quite the right word for it. It's not the right tone. Shane Warne used to get drift - that I can make sense of; Abdul Qadir used to as well, but the stock delivery for both used to float far more, like a lightly weighted balloon. What Shahid Afridi gets on those occasions when he is bowling well is called drift - I've called it that plenty of times - but I'm not sure I can any longer square that with either his style of bowling or his character.
Life drifts. Paper planes drift. Music drifts. Writing drifts. Afridi does not drift. Afridi does whatever is the opposite of drift. He is defined by that opposition. It is impossible to imagine him drifting in any sphere, shape or form. Granted bowling is not always an extension of personality but to reconcile his legspin getting drift with how he is is especially tricky.
So what is it? The central wrinkle in any appreciation of Afridi's bowling is that calling him a legspinner is to both be overambitious and inadequate. A sub-complication is that there is no such thing as orthodox legspin. You can use one fast bowler as a reference point in comparison to another and create a broadly homogenised genre. You can do the same with offspinners. But try doing that with a legspinner. Warne, Qadir, Anil Kumble, Stuart MacGill, Danish Kaneria (to use just five recent examples); as a category, legspin is only really as wide as each individual practitioner. That is partly why we love it. Afridi has never been a great turner of the ball. Sometimes he goes a whole spell without a single delivery turning away from bat. He has a wrong 'un, a conventionally gripped offbreak, a faster ball, and then a bunch of other stuff that might be deliberate and might not, but importantly might be harmless dot balls if delivered by any other man.
Lately I've started making sense of his bowling by imagining him to be a bit like Fazal Mahmood. Fazal's pace has always been a point of curiosity, but it is safe to assume, from various first-hand accounts, that he wasn't fast-bowler quick. That Richie Benaud once used his own legspin as a measure (Fazal, Benaud wrote figuratively, was twice as quick) I've always found telling. In particular, the legcutter Fazal made his name with. I can see how it might be a not-too distant relative of the vintage Afridi legbreak, except a few clicks quicker.
Fazal's best deliveries also used to get what we call drift, as well as some dip, before cutting away. But that word just isn't right; there is too much intent and purpose, too much ambition in those deliveries that behave that way, too much career-driven focus (the career, in this case, being a wicket at the end) for them to just drift. Let's maybe diagnose it exactly as we see it: deliveries with a mild affliction of swing?
The point to this pedantry being that when Afridi starts getting it is when the complex universe in his bowling is right. It was the absence of this in the months and matches leading up to this first ODI against West Indies that was beginning to make him look every one of his years - the real Pathan years. Between taking Mathew Wade's wicket off the last ball of his first over in Sharjah in August 2012 and having Lendl Simmons stumped off the first ball of his second over in Guyana in July 2013, Afridi had gone wicketless in six ODIs and 57 overs. For a guy who tries as hard to convince the world - and himself - that he really is a bowler and an incidental batsman (and to be fair has done a pretty good job with the convincing over the last decade), imagine the torture of being in such a rut.
That Simmons wicket was tell-tale of what was to come. It swung in - mildly, of course - cut away, and boom! Stumped, gone (with generous pause for endless third-umpire TV replays in between the boom, stumped and gone). Possibly it was the first one that had behaved like that for months.
And next ball he did it again, that mild inswing, except this one didn't break away. This one went on with the angle the ball's swing had created and thudded into Dwayne Bravo's front pad. Smart, dead, gone, so dead and gone, there was no use for technology this time. "It's an Afridi special as well," Ian Bishop reminded us on air, "it's quicker, and just slides straight on to Dwayne Bravo." Slide - I'm more comfortable with that than drift. Maybe it should be a genre of one: Afridi, right-arm slider.
After that there could only be one outcome. Afridi's keenness to impress and please, and to be validated, has always been of a hyperactive bent. So here, where behind him stretched a long, long drought, which had led to him being dropped from the side, he had much to make up for. He had already made crucial runs when Pakistan batted. Now he also had two early wickets, and ahead of him a batting line-up that was swiftly receding in capability; it was like adding an espresso, some speed and then a shot of pure adrenaline to the hyperactivity.
Ultimately, and sadly, there remains something underwhelming about the performance, misplaced in a nothing series between two middling sides (the hosts more so than the tourists) in cricket's nothingest format. For a while afterwards it felt like a late-period outlier in Afridi's career: in seven ODIs immediately after this, he took only four wickets. Only late last year did he return to consistently better form and output. But such is its sheer statistical freakery that it is impossible to forget and ignore. Seven for 12? Those are figures from a terrible, uncovered, unprepared and rain-drenched pitch early in the 1900s, with stiff-legged batsmen unable to cope with, I don't know, a Sydney Barnes or even the Demon, Frederick Spofforth himself.