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April 15, 2005
Everything is rendered meaningless. The pitch, the field, the captain, the bowler, strategies, bowling changes, opening partners, the nervous nineties, traditional thought ... everything goes, such is Shahid Afridi's joyous disregard for convention.
When India instigated a stirring fightback late in the morning to eke out 249 on a suspiciously (and thankfully) unODI-like pitch, the target held fears. Low bounce, a bit of grip, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh in tandem, new captain - game on. Pakistan's start, we said, would be crucial. A breezy fifty here, maybe with a cameo from Afridi, and it could get interesting. But Afridi rendered it all irrelevant.
Two initial overs were played out with decorum, nine runs were scored respectfully. Then madness broke out. Afridi first picked up Lakshmipathy Balaji off his shins over square leg. A couple of balls later, a dextrous flick in the same area brought another four. Balaji adjusted his radar, pitching the next ball straighter. He'll block it, I thought. Afridi disagreed, picking it up straight but dizzyingly high. Aha! Caught at mid-off then? But the ball kept going, reaching higher and travelling further still. He was indeed caught - but by the ballboy two yards behind the boundary. To conclude the over, he part-slashed, part-drove past point; no-one saw the ball until it crashed into the boundary boards.
OK, so far, so normal. A breezy cameo 20 meets an abrupt end. Ah, here comes Anil Kumble, bringing with him three options for Afridi: stumped, bowled, or caught slicing between mid-off and cover. The first ball was directed over and beyond square leg. Well, it was a waist-high full-toss, and got what it deserved. Soon he will perish. Next ball, Afridi showed us his unique interpretation of the sweep. The ball looped outside off, fullish, so Afridi bent down and, with a cross-batted flick, sent it over midwicket.
Kumble went round the wicket to bring the ugly miscued, sliced slog to mid-off's hands into play. All went to plan, except someone forgot to factor in Afridi's forearms. The shot sailed over long-off, landing and dribbling to the fence. When he stepped out next ball to lift, casually, between long-on and midwicket for a fourth six, finally we sensed that something might be up.
He soon pushed Zaheer Khan for - hold your breath - an utterly orthodox defensive push down the ground for four and something was indeed up: his 50, off 20 balls. Until then Zaheer had avoided the carnage, but Afridi disregarded the fact that the next ball was on a good length, and sent it soaring over midwicket. It was his 200th six, in 204 one-day matches.
And on he went, smashing everything and everyone. Dinesh Mongia, who we all thought might do a bit, was greeted, mockingly, with a forward defensive. The next ball landed atop the shamiana [tent] enclosure where the Pakistani fans were seated at long-on, and it brought the team 100 up in the 10th over. The rest of his innings, before and after, will be remembered as a blur, a flurry of unreal machismo.
What happened? Fields were changed, maybe, and I think bowlers were too. Did some balls turn? Others may have bounced awkwardly or gripped dangerously, but so what? Afridi remained Afridi, disregarding. Occasionally, between balls, he would diligently practise a defensive stroke, elbow high and straight, stance upright ... and then forget about all that as the next ball came down. The nineties, usually so tense, were barely considered: the ten most vital runs in batting traversed uncaringly, with three fours and a couple of singles somewhere among them.
One image will remain, of absolute tranquillity amid the chaos: Afridi, standing at the non-striker's end, in the 14th over, as he approached his 100, gloves off, both arms swinging freely. Was he keeping them loose? Or was he pausing for breath, taking stock maybe as he contemplated what turned out to be the joint-second-fastest 100 in ODI history (he already owns the fastest)? More likely he was allowing us to pause for breath and take stock of what we were witnessing.
The hundred arrived - his fourth in all, but his first in exactly three years - with his tenth four soon afterwards to go with nine sixes. The very next ball, cynically disproving those who tell him to pay heed to defence occasionally, he was bowled, prodding forward to Harbhajan Singh. He'd faced 46 balls for 102; his opening partner Salman Butt - yes, he was also playing - made 21 in the same number of balls. When Afridi left, the match withered. It became meaningless, it became conventional ... we lost interest and didn't really care how it would end. For 75 minutes, we didn't watch cricket, we watched Shahid Afridi toying with it.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance cricket writer based in Karachi. He is following the Pakistan team through their tour of India.
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