March 7, 2011

Afridi's real match-winning role

He made his name by blasting bowlers in the stands, but nowadays it's with ball in hand that Pakistan's captain makes his biggest mark

In hindsight, Shahid Afridi's first international innings has come to hang around him like a curse. It has condemned him forever after to expectations of a repeat, which is why his Kanpur hundred against India was probably the greater feat. But until recently it had thrown him into a kind of purgatory, stuck between the promise of that Afridi and the possibility of a milder Afridi of greater maturity and sense.

It's a shame, for only over the last few years has the truth about Afridi emerged, the truth he has propagated ever louder since he finally settled into the ODI side in 2004 and the truth he has actually known since he began: he is a bowler. He is not a batting all-rounder who bowls. With imagination, he could be a bowling all-rounder who can bat, though with that we could all be Brad Pitt or Angeline Jolie. Mostly he is just a bowler. Very occasionally he changes the game with a bat.

Not many people buy it still. At every press conference he has appeared in during the World Cup, he's been asked at least once when we can expect some, to use the unimaginative phrase, boom boom. What about your batting? Are you worried about your batting? When will you perform with the bat?

A few years ago he'd bother to give a proper response, to say he was working on it; the coaches and seniors were helping him; he didn't know why but he just felt like belting the ball as soon as he saw the bowler run in and so on. These last couple of weeks he has simply become dismissive, even a little snarky: "Yes, inshallah I will perform," "Yes, I am batting well," or "it was a good ball," which he said about a wide full toss outside off he scythed straight to point. Off a Canadian bowler.

He hasn't stopped caring about his batting altogether because he lives off the image, of course, as does the new sports equipment firm in Pakistan, Boom Boom. The idea of an Afridi six remains commercially lucrative but you can see it annoys him. He wants to be known as a bowler first. And as three games have reaffirmed in this World Cup, he is actually an out and out strike bowler and currently, Pakistan's most effective.

Statsguru, as it does so often, might shock you. Since the beginning of 2008, nobody has taken more wickets for Pakistan than Afridi, who has 94 in 66 ODIs. More impressively, only three bowlers around the world have taken more wickets than him in that time. Only Shakib Al Hasan has bowled more overs than him. And both his strike rate and economy rates for the top wicket-takers in that period, are among the best.

From every angle, Afridi is a striker, a matchwinning bowler and a golden one at that. It is to him Pakistan go for wickets and breakthroughs, for controlling the run-rate, for applying pressure. And he does it across that spread of the game - the middle overs - where matters are most difficult: runs need to be stopped to control proceedings and wickets need to be taken to win them.

On his best days, Afridi gets a quite vicious drift. It isn't a floating one like more traditional leg-spinners might get. It is rapid, an extension of his personality. Suddenly in flight the ball dips and swerves in, generally towards the front pad. When that happens, you know they're coming out of his hand well. In conditions such as he has met in Sri Lanka - "ideal," he says - where the ball might grip and skid and turn, he can even get a decent, loopy leggie going. The dismissal of Thilan Samaraweera at the Premadasa could not have looked better had it come in whites, with a red ball.

Nobody is sure quite how many variations he does possess probably not even himself, but there are enough. On those good days, if he gets a wicket early, he is trouble for the best sides; Associates like Kenya and Canada have little hope. He is all over you, in spirit the fast bowler his ethnicity almost demands him to be. On these days, he'll follow through further than most fast bowlers.

Against Canada he even brought back his legendary faster ball and one, clocked at 80mph, was quicker than anything Canada bowled all day. He once got Greg Blewett with one in the Australia tri-series of 1997-98 that hit the stumps before Blewett had even thought about bringing his bat down. And there was once the bouncer to Brian Lara, followed by an air kiss.

Most relevantly, bowling is how Afridi leads best. There is still a basic defensiveness in strategy and tactic and orthodoxy in field settings, but with ball in hand or in the field, nobody makes more of their presence than him. Not to disrespect Inzamam-ul-Haq's captaincy, which had fine points to it, but how the Canada chase could have drifted under his own leadership in the field? Afridi just doesn't let a game go, even if he fumbles and slips and errs, he is very much there. Pakistan responds to that kind of visibility and energy.

This tournament is driving him, you can see that as clear as day. He wouldn't mind some help - and he will need it - if Pakistan are to go further. He has taken just under half of all wickets taken by the side in three games: 14 of 29. Others have bowled well but he has always looked the likeliest wicket-taker. That would be, we can now conclude, because he is.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo

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