The contagious madness of Shahid Afridi
You could almost feel the anger in Wasim Akram's voice. Shahid Afridi had attempted a trademark hoick with his team precariously placed at 117 for 5 against Afghanistan. The stumps had rattled and Wasim started to rail against Afridi, his refusal to learn, the fact that over 17 years of cricket Afridi had declined to listen to what had been told to him repeatedly, often by Wasim himself. You nodded along, as you often do when Wasim is commentating in a language in which he can articulate himself better than in English.
Yet three days later, all was forgiven. By Wasim, by Afridi's fans, and by his detractors. Just an average week in the life of Shahid Afridi.
There is a politically incorrect saying in Urdu that being a Pathan is not an ethnicity but a state of being that can affect anyone at any time. It comes from the slightly racist view that plain dwellers have of people from the mountains. That they are rugged and dim, and kill before they think. It's the sort of stereotype that myths of centaurs and berserkers were made of in ancient times. They are men's men, in every sense of the word, as another stereotype has it. Thus, whenever a Pakistani fan has to justify an Afridi brain-freeze, he looks for that stereotype - that Afridi is a Pathan, what else would you expect from him?
Afridi had the luxury his successors have never had; he walked into a winning team. A team that could carry his brain fades and allow him to be himself; by the time that generation passed, the Pakistani fan was so used to the "mercurial" Afridi that there was never a movement to try to correct his game. In fact, they loved him for being so out of the norm. The shot Umar Akmal played against India is one that Afridi has played dozens of times before - the ridiculously ill-timed and idiotic slog that flirts with the stars before coming down into a fielder's hands (think of the World Twenty20 final in 2007, probably the greatest of Afridi's senseless skiers). But while Akmal will be castigated, and whatever he will receive will still be less than he deserves, there was far less criticism of Afridi then, as there always is. In 2007, we blamed Misbah for not finishing it off. There was no point in blaming Afridi; it was just Shahid being Shahid, that's what we told ourselves. That's what we always tell ourselves, just Shahid being a Pathan, and we move on.
That is not to say that Afridi is given special treatment wrongly. Afridi, after all, is the living embodiment of the Pakistani dream. This is a country that believes in messiahs, whether in politics, sport, or elsewhere. The idea that one man can come in, change everything and take us to the mountaintop; it is this idea that explains why democracy has never been as beloved of the Pakistani populace as it is elsewhere; it is for this reason that the last military coup was celebrated in the city of the deposed leader; and it is for this reason that Afridi will play as long as he wants to play. Afridi is the personification of hope, of the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, the light might be of an oncoming train, but it is still hope, however false it may be. And every now and then at the end of the tunnel we do actually emerge into the light. And all of us feel like Andy Dufresne - the river of excrement, the years in prison, none of that matters the moment the rain washes away everything. That is how we define our teams and our sportsmen, not with numbers and figures but with moments.
It is en vogue to try to reduce sport to numbers, and I am fond of doing so as much as the next bloke, even if the next bloke is Andy Flower. My belief is that sport, as Jonathan Wilson put it, can be beautiful in its struggle. "It may be entertaining, but it is not and should never be an entertainment."
Sport exists on a higher plane than mere entertainment. So I could be defined as an ideologue against the cult of Afridi. The idea that sustained success is a greater goal than occasional moments; that consistent excellence is an aim worth striving for. Yet even as I fell out of love with Shoaib Akhtar for not dissimilar reasons, I have never been able to completely disregard Afridi, though having made the jump from being fan to journalist means that I can know more about him than I ever need to. Afridi asks questions of his detractors that they struggle to answer. He asks questions of his opponents that they can't even comprehend.
How do you prepare against a man who doesn't know what he's doing half the time? In the last two years Afridi played an average of 13 balls per innings, yet against India on Sunday he decided to not play a single bad shot till his 18th ball. Everything was played with the spin; he didn't try to aimlessly slog a pacer even once. Afridi decided, randomly, to play a good innings. You can't prepare against randomness. Every responsible Afridi innings is unexpected.
And then that 18th ball was trademark Afridi. Pakistan needed 3 off 3, so the obvious thing to do was to try to smash it as hard as possible and hope that it landed beyond the boundary fielder. There was a moment as he struck it that you thought he'd messed it up; but he hadn't, and then all you could do was bang on tables and throw water on yourself. That is what he reduces even his detractors to. He believes in madness, and that madness is contagious.
When we are ten years old, we think when we end up playing for the national team we'll be the player Afridi is right now: in your face, uber-aggressive, and confident in the cliché that who dares wins. Then we grow up, get nine-to-fives, raise families, and become conservative. The average Pakistani ends up being like Mohammad Hafeez - confident on the outside, questionable on the inside, jack of all trades master of none, doing enough to get by, occasionally getting the love, never the adulation. Afridi is a window into our ten-year-old selves. He does not operate on a mental level, he only toys with your heartstrings. That's why even as you rail against his presence - and I have done that more than most - every time he comes out to bat you are engulfed by the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it.
Numbers give you solace, they give you a belief that if X happens Y number of times then Z will be the answer. The law of averages gives you comfort; Afridi doesn't. Supporting Afridi is like doing heroin; it will kill you in the end, one body part at a time, yet you will remain addicted to it, because nothing beats its high.
Afridi is the messiah, he is nostalgia, he is hope, he's naiveté. You can't prepare against that. You can't compete against that.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here