May 2, 2013

There's something about Shahid

A lot of people think Afridi is ideally suited to T20s, but think again. T20 makes Afridis of everyone but negates the qualities that are his very essence

The problem with the careers of Pakistan cricketers is that you never really know when they're over. Even life bans rarely prove terminal, so why pay any attention to a retirement? A player who has merely been dropped is barely even worth remarking upon.

Shahid Afridi has just been dropped for the second time in 18 months. He himself says that players "usually get dropped" and that "being in and out is a one-off thing". Nevertheless, at some point or other, he will be dropped for a final time, never to return - and cricket will be the poorer for it.

Pakistan fans will tot up his recent runs and wickets and perhaps reach a different conclusion, but I am not a Pakistan fan. I am a Pakistan enthusiast. I enjoy the very things that frustrate supporters yearning for a Pakistan win - the unpredictability, the irresponsibility, the total commitment to swinging off your feet even when the match situation positively demands that you bat defensively.

In many ways T20 cricket has ruined Afridi. A lot of people think he is ideally suited to that format, but I heartily disagree. T20 makes Afridis of everyone but negates the qualities that are his very essence.

If you believe that Afridi is defined by the sixes he hits, I can only tell you that you are wrong. Afridi is actually defined by the sixes he tries to hit - the end result simply doesn't come into it. Instead, it is all about his mindset; that complete inability to play appropriately for the situation.

Because of this, Afridi was always at his best in Test cricket. He shone like a madly flashing lighthouse positioned to serve no discernible purpose. In T20 cricket, everyone tries to slog sixes because that is what they are supposed to do. The format has been engineered with cow corner in mind. In this world, Afridi is just one of many; he is just a number. (Ignore his bowling. As far as most of us are concerned, his bowling has only ever been a convenient means of justifying his occasional appearances at the crease.)

If you have been brought up with T20 cricket, you will never "get" Afridi. The format has legitimised his approach to batting and that is not what the man is about. He is about total commitment to his unproductive method, no matter all the evidence that says he should adopt a slightly different approach. There is purity in that.

Cricket is data-driven these days. This is an age of analysis. You don't need a laptop to deduce that Afridi would score more runs if he didn't try and maximise his return on every single delivery he faces, but there is something to be said for so consistently flying in the face of reason. As a spectator, I live for those rare days when madness conquers method. We need somebody to fly that flag.

A successful Afridi assault conquers not just the bowling but also an entire philosophy. It says: "Your probabilities and percentages have no place here. This is a land where we do stupid things again and again and every now and again, for no particular reason, they happen to come off. What are you going to do about it?"

I do not want to see Afridi when the required run rate is 12 an over. That entirely misses the point. I want to see him when he needs to bat out time on the final day of a Test match on a turning pitch, because that is when he is at his best.

Sadly, he has retired from the longest format and is also not part of the current one-day team. Is there any hope?

"I have ample cricket left in me," he says.

Alex Bowden blogs at King Cricket

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