June 11, 2012

The leggie trapped in a slogger's identity

Shahid Afridi's on-field persona and off-field drama have distracted us from the fact that he is essentially a game-changing wristspinner

For most of his cricketing life, Shahid Afridi has had to contend with impossible expectations. After he smashed a new record for the fastest century in his very first outing at the crease, he was expected to do an encore each time he went out to bat. When he finally began concentrating on his legspinners and variations, he was expected to run through every batting line-up. After he took over the limited-overs captaincy, it was thought he would transform the team into a stick of dynamite. These are burdens that would have crushed any lesser mortal. Afridi has taken them in his stride.

Much of this has to do with his DNA. The Afridi tribe originated from brutal mountainous terrain overlapping Afghanistan and Pakistan. Even today, the name evokes ferocity, daring, and fearlessness. Shahid Afridi's approach to cricket has been nothing short of tribal warfare. Background, context, and meaning are pushed to the periphery. It's all about the immediacy of the challenge, the moment of conflict, the act of confrontation and battle.

It is an attitude that has carried him far. Afridi's 36 international Man-of-the-Match awards place him tenth in the overall list, ahead of the likes of Adam Gilchrist, Chris Gayle, and Muttiah Muralitharan. In T20Is, he has collected more match awards (seven) than any other cricketer - proof of his match-winning abilities.

He has hit more sixes in international cricket than anyone else, with no threat of being overtaken anytime soon, and has the the highest stike rate (by a distance) among players who have batted in at least 50 innings. In the list of fastest ODI hundreds, his name appears three times in the top seven; in the list of fastest ODI fifties, he appears five times in the top 12. He is eighth in the all-time list of most ODI wickets, ahead of Shane Warne and Saqlain Mushtaq, and behind only Akram and Waqar Younis from Pakistan.

He has a nose for the big moment. In 2009, Afridi lifted Pakistan to the World T20 title, with Man-of-the-Match performances in the semi-final and final. In 2011, he motivated a scandal-weary side to the semi-final of the World Cup, and could well have taken them beyond had his team-mates snapped up any one of Sachin Tendulkar's four chances in Mohali.

Yet for all his achievements, Afridi remains a terribly misunderstood and polarising figure. In the eyes of many Pakistan supporters, he is overrated, overhyped, and irresponsible, which is astonishing. Captains and coaches have invariably struggled with his stubbornness, and administrators have certainly never come to terms with his irrepressible independent streak. The previous PCB chief irked him so much that Afridi announced his retirement; the current one remains wary of him and has gagged him from talking to the media.

While there is also a large constituency united in blind adoration for Afridi, their intense devotion is inspired not so much by Afridi's match-winning ability or all-round repertoire as by his propensity for batting pyrotechnics. For this segment of the fan base, if Afridi gets out early, the known universe might as well collapse. It is not uncommon in Pakistan to see entire stadiums emptying out after Afridi has gone cheaply.

Wristspinners are supposed to be enigmatic and mysterious, but Afridi embellishes the art with threatening body language, combative appealing, and hostile eye contact as only an Afridi can

The perpetual irony of Afridi's career is that almost everything about him - explosive slogging from down the pitch, leonine prowling between cover and extra cover, moody portrayals in the media - has been a distraction from his authentic cricketing identity as a game-changing wristspinner.

He has a bag of tricks that would make Warne proud: a classic legbreak that heads towards first slip after pitching on middle or leg, a topspinner that jags up viciously from a length, a googly, a finger-spun offbreak that comes out of the blue, and a straight fast ball, hurled with the seam up. Wristspinners are supposed to be enigmatic and mysterious, but Afridi embellishes the art with threatening body language, combative appealing and hostile eye contact as only Afridi can.

It took a while for even Afridi to understand his true forte. Called up from the Pakistan Under-19s touring West Indies in late 1996, he earned national selection as a legspinning replacement for Mushtaq Ahmed, and in his first ODI innings he got to a hundred off 37 balls. This talent for clearing the sightscreen fetched him instant renown and made him a regular in the side; the legspinning identity was buried. Within two years, his bowling strike rate was hovering near 70, and his international bowling average had ballooned to over 54.

It's taken repeated batting disappointments and visceral revulsion from the fans over the better part of a decade for Afridi to finally embrace the bowler inside him. His bowling strike rate is now in the low 40s, and his international bowling average has come down to under 32. With such visible success, the fan base has also adjusted. His detractors remain, but they are increasingly marginalised.

Officially 32 years old, Afridi has reached the period when a cricketer begins to edge past his biological prime. Perhaps not so much in his bowling but to some extent at the batting crease, and certainly out in the field, age is starting show. You can tell that retirement - this time for real - can't be too far behind. Yet challenging opportunities are ahead for Afridi - the World Twenty20 in September, bilateral series with the likes of Australia and South Africa, and probably one other multi-nation tournament over the next couple of years.

In a recent media interview Afridi indicated that he has begun to reflect on his legacy. Revealing deep ambitions, he said he wants to be remembered with the kind of reverence that is accorded Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, and Wasim Akram. That may be too far into the stratosphere even for Afridi, but the perch he eventually comes to occupy will be lofty indeed. He has served Pakistan with enormous impact, ability and drive, and he definitely has the star wattage. He will go down as one of the great X-factor players for sure, a tremendously skilled limited-overs specialist - certainly one of the best.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • TILA10 on February 11, 2015, 17:02 GMT

    brilliant article...

  • Dummy4 on June 14, 2012, 20:08 GMT

    Well write :) Superb articale to tribute BOOM BOOM Afridi ...

  • narsimha on June 14, 2012, 1:16 GMT

    WICKYROYPAKLOVER -YAA when we do some thing remarkable than the team were weak at that time blah,, more over u never responded with stats even now u r on are old song we won, all we are second blah,, i am talking over all wins against these teams not % in my erlier post i proved it with stats , INDIA WAS THE OLNY TEAM WHICH NOT ONLY CHALLENGED THE MIGHTY WINDIES & AUS DURING thier vworld domination in home & away INDIA BEAT WI IN WIDIES ,beat LLOYD TEAM IN 83 , AUS could not win any thing against us during those dominating period i have stats , i am not here to demean u as u are diong on our players, we love u r players but the way u people branding our greats that hurts , few of ur post rubbishes our players as home track bullies now to prove IMRAANS greatness u r saying he was bowling on un resposive subcontinental pitches than he was home tiger , no he was a great player along with other all rounders of his era thats it. THE STATS PROVED SIR HADLEE WAS A SUPERIOR BOWLER .

  • Dummy4 on June 13, 2012, 21:21 GMT

    just want to say Be Afridi Be very Afridi !!!

  • Wicky on June 13, 2012, 19:37 GMT

    @g.narisma,ur argument regardng hadle beter than imran z highly flawd 4 folowng reasns,1.imran have far superior avrage at subcntinent n hadlee strugld here,check avrags of both against great windies of 80's,imran was way ahead of hadle as an alroundr whil both were reasnably equal with bal,2.imran had d edge ovr hadle 4 simpl reasn,hadlee enjoyd mostly gd bowlng cnditns whil imran prformd far wel on sbcntinent (check stats),3.murali averags lowr than warne,who z betr?i gues it z prsnal choice bt imran was no way leser than hadlee,importantly,imran z d best evr captain to lead a team on earth

  • Wicky on June 13, 2012, 18:17 GMT

    @g.narisma,my friend i have always responded u but somehow u didn't want to get it.I Have respndid u many a times that our record against eng,wi, r way way beter than urs.AUS z always been a bug bear 4 al sbcntinental teams includng us,u indians jst keep whining about cb series 2008 when aus were weakest by their standards,pak won an odi series in 2002 in indor melbourne stadim,so case z neutralizd,all these great batsmen,great bowlrs phenomenon hav evrythng to deal with match wining ratios,pak have 3rd bst in tests 2nd best in odis aftr aus,what else u want 4rm our team,whil ur team have worst in tests,we havn't plyd too much against sa

  • narsimha on June 13, 2012, 14:02 GMT

    WICKYROYPAKLOVER-SINCE U HAVE DECLARED THAT IMRAANKHAAN was best among yesteryears greats like SIR HADLEE, MARSHAL etc i have checked the stat guru & found that SIR HADLEE is far superior bowler than IMRAAM (no disrespect to him as u people alway out here on our players ) stats- SIR HADLEE-TEST-86-W-431-BB-9/55-AVE-22.29-5W-36,10W-9,ODI-115-W-158-BB-5/25-AVE-21, 5W5times , IMRAAN-TEST-88-W-362-BB-8/58-AVE-22.81-5W-23, 10W-6-odis-175-W-182-BB-6-14-AVE-26.61-5W-1-I just drawn these stats to put the things in right perspective as u made unrealistic claims above.while IMARAAN had the luxiry of able partners in SARFARAJ, LATER WASIM at other ends to maitain pressure from both ends but HADLEE never had such an advantage as his bowling partners were average bowlers REG SACHIN -AFRIDI i had stats to prove u wrong but be happy on u r self appaisal .

  • Imi on June 13, 2012, 13:49 GMT

    Wow - great writing. Thanks.

  • narsimha on June 13, 2012, 10:18 GMT

    WICKY ROY PAK LOVER - WE NEVER EVER compare u r players with ours & rubbish them , the cricketing world EX PLAYERS EXPERTS EVEN SIR DONALD BRADMAN already expressed on SACHIN BRADMAN said he was seeing HIMSELF in SACHIN ,thats enough rest is meaning less we can sream at the top of our throat that our players are the best but the neutrals are the best judges I DONT THINK SACHIN requires certificates , reg u r assertion that AFRIDI win once in every 2-3 , & sachin once in 100, the stats available in this site tells deferent story , but i am also not in favour of copmarisions , i always posed just one question to u sever times in deferent pages u never responded if u r players are the best, world beaters & ours are useless than where r the results ,u r team stands now , how many series wins in AUS, SA ENG, WI . WITH STATS I PROVED THAT WE WON MORE MATCHES AGAINST THESE TEAMS . MORE OVER U R claims that SACHIN IS BORING , IN T-20 ODIS BLAH,,,, he is not a regular in these forme

  • Wicky on June 13, 2012, 8:30 GMT

    @IndiaRulesEverybody,ur comment z gd enuff to provok a great amount of laughtr in me.R U SERIOUS,SAchin greater than wasim,sachin greater than imran,imran z arguebly d greatest alroundrs of al times pls he was easily d best bowler among hadlee ,marshal,sachn may b A "GOD" 4 a certain proportn of indian populatn bt certainly he has earnd fame nt even half of what wasim,imran achieve outshde their home grounds,sachn's prime z finisd well about 6 yrs ago n he z jst a liablity in ind's odi,t20 team,he z one of most boring plyr 4 t20 along kalis,n what about wasim akran,"THE KING OF SWING N VARIETY",I THNK SACHN MAY B half as gd as these 2 legends.AFridi wins about 2to 3 matchs out of 10 with bat while sachin makes ind win 2 in 100 matchs.AS SIMPLE AS THAT

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