Boom Boom trades noise for effect
Just when did Shahid Afridi grow up? It's tempting to narrow the answer down to a few days in mid-June, when Pakistan's Super Eight campaign at the ICC World Twenty20 reached the edge of the precipice. After defeat against Sri Lanka, the situation was simple enough. The next loss would be their last, the signal for the players to pack their bags and head home for the summer.
Afridi's lack of form with the bat was symptomatic of the team's woes. In the warm-up game against India, watched by a full house at The Oval, Afridi walked out with Pakistan in big trouble at 45 for 3. A bit of circumspection would have helped but as soon as you saw the ball in Irfan Pathan's hand you could almost sense what would transpire next. The two men have a history, to put it mildly, and when Irfan bowled one full and a touch wide, Afridi reacted with a wild flail. Had the bat connected cleanly, the ball would have cleared the rope by a distance but instead it flew off the edge to MS Dhoni's right behind the stumps. The latest installment of the Pathan v Pathan clash of egos had gone the way of the younger one from Vadodara.
Afridi's dismal run with the bat continued right through to the Sri Lanka game in the Super Eights, and when he chipped in with perky cameos against New Zealand and Ireland it was convenient to disregard them given that neither team really gave Pakistan a game. South Africa were up next, in the semi-final at Trent Bridge, and on the walk to the ground it was noticeable just how many wore Pakistan jerseys with his name on it. Perform or perish, Afridi has thrilled fans' hearts like few others.
Even then, there was more than a mild buzz of surprise when he walked out after just eight balls, at No. 3. Wayne Parnell and Dale Steyn had come into the game with rave reviews, and many regarded it as an unnecessarily foolhardy risk. And so we waited, for the impetuous hoick or the wild heave that would lead to sage nods and raised eyebrows. This was Afridi after all.
The wait was a long one. Afridi batted 46 minutes and faced 34 balls for his 51 before JP Duminy's part-time spin did for South Africa what Afridi had so often done for Pakistan. Someone who hadn't watched the game would have been entitled to ask: So, how many sixes did he whack? The answer was none. There were eight fours, but not one swipe out of the ground. This was controlled aggression, calculated menace, the sort of innings Inzamam-ul-Haq might have played.
Now, three months on, Afridi leads the side, with Younis Khan nursing a hairline fracture on the little finger of his right hand. How had he changed, he was asked, from the teenager who spanked a 37-ball century to this senior-statesman version entrusted with shepherding a young and exciting side? "I have a beard now," he said with a laugh. "I also have a wife and children. Responsibility has matured me. I still enjoy cricket but I try and avoid the reckless strokeplay now.
"There's been good and bad, wins and losses, smiles and cries, more the latter for me. It's a struggle, similar to what life is like. I'm enjoying it and I will as long as I play. It's an honour to be playing for Pakistan. To captain the team is a dream come true."
He remained quietly confident too that the Twenty20 heroics could be translated to the 50-over arena. "We all know our strengths," he said. "Not only are we strong in batting, but bowling as well. It's a balanced team. But I never take any team lightly any time, especially when it's the first match of the tournament. We're 11 playing against 11. We're equal in that sense. We can't think that we will win easily."
The self-belief and motivation that he spoke of will be most tested on Saturday, when they renew acquaintance with India. "I enjoy playing India the most," he said, another smile flashing across his face. Having tormented India in both Tests and one-dayers [Chennai 1999 and Kanpur 2005 readily come to mind], he certainly won't hold back no matter how high the stakes. "They've just been lucky to win in the ICC events," he said. "Winning and losing is part of the game. All I ask from the team is for everyone to give their 100%. I'll be content even if we lose. If you lose after fighting, even the followers don't mind that."
By then, Mohammad Asif will also be available for selection after serving a one-year ban. "It's good for Pakistan, his comeback," Intikhab Alam, the coach, said. "The type of bowler he is, it'll be a challenge for him. He's a matchwinner and has that kind of ability. We're all looking forward to having him back."
Regardless of whether Asif plays against West Indies, most eyes will be on the man the supporters would happily follow as though he was the Pied Piper of Hamelin. From enfant terrible to experienced hand and now leader of the pack, it's been quite a journey, with huge crests and equally scary troughs. "I hope to come up to expectations," he said. "I already captained in Sri Lanka [in the Twenty20], with success and I've been backed by the players. It's a really important match and I'll try and instill the winning mentality into the players."
Those who adore him call him Boom Boom. The explosions seem a little more calculated these days, and there's a look in the eye which suggests that he may not go bust as casually as he once did. That 51 in the Twenty20 semi was followed by an equally responsible half-century in the final. Having taken his own sweet time to mature, Afridi seems to be loving this adult lark.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo