Pakistan v South Africa, 3rd ODI, Faisalabad October 23, 2007

The Pathan takes charge

On some days it just isn't worth anyone's while, running into Shahid Afridi
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Shahid Afridi couldn't put a foot wrong in Faisalabad © AFP

On some days it just isn't worth your while running into Shahid Afridi. He'll hustle you when he bowls, he'll bully you when he bats and he'll jeer and taunt you when he fields. He'll pop up wherever and whenever the opposition don't want him to, etiquette be damned.

South Africa huffed and puffed today, as they have through the series, but they haven't been able to blow him away. A certain mood has gripped the Pathan and he's been fairly straining at an imaginary leash to have a go. In Lahore, he scared them with the bat first, then flummoxed them with his legspin; in Faisalabad he did both and in between added a stunning catch for good measure. The Man-of-the-Match award was a shoo-in.

He was nonchalant about it later, even arguing that Mohammad Yousuf's fine fifty deserved it. "I wasn't special. I need to keep performing in my bowling, batting and fielding so I can do a little bit in everything."

Modest it may be, but as a bowler it is difficult to recall him being a more difficult proposition to face, especially on surfaces such as this one, comprehending which was beyond the grasp of most. No runs are given easily and there's never enough time to settle, to gather thoughts about the opportunities to score that have just passed by. This brings the game to his pace, of cricket, of thinking, of life; everything he does, he readily admits, is in a hurry.

He's also got more tricks than a truckload of monkeys; slow, quick, wrong'un, offbreak and if the pitch is giving it, then appreciable turn for the leggie. Little wonder he says it is his primary function, and any bowler who dismisses Jacques Kallis twice in successive innings has a right to say that.

His batting, it must now be accepted, will not pass out of puberty. Best just to accept that and wait for days like this, when he is so good with the ball and in the field that two things are inevitable: he opens the batting and he succeeds. If his bowling used the surface as sweetly as a trickster uses his confidence, then his batting defied it as stubbornly as a petulant child might his parents. An 18-ball 32 on what turned out to be a real sluggard of a surface is not to be taken lightly, especially in light of how the others struggled.

It is difficult to reconcile to the idea that Afridi may eventually mature as man and player. If he does, it might actually be the undoing of him

He had, he admitted, wanted to open for some time. "There was a little pressure as I hadn't done it for so long. I wanted to just give a good start but Yousuf really batted superbly. Malik thinks I am more relaxed in the lower order but I just said that if the openers aren't working out, give me a chance."

Malik said before this match that Afridi had a vital role to play for Pakistan. "He's a senior player, bowling, batting and fielding well and really lifts the players in the field." He is actually the most senior now in this ODI team, in terms of the years he has been playing international cricket.

Afridi is aware of it too. His desire to captain Pakistan when Younis Khan turned it down was no secret and he even had some backing, if only for the shorter game. He was eventually overlooked even for the vice-captaincy; and before scoffing at the thought of Afridi and a leadership role, note that the official vice-captain is currently 12th man. In any case, he's been easily Pakistan's most vibrant figure - as he was through 2005 - and a proxy leader of sorts.

It is difficult to reconcile to the idea that Afridi may eventually mature as man and player. If he does, it might actually be the undoing of him. But if this is his own way of responding to a position of quasi-responsibility, then all power to him.

Osman Samiuddin is the Pakistan editor of Cricinfo