April 6, 2015

Staffordshire's summer of Afridi

He might not play ODIs again, but an English league won't forget the time they had cricket's most surreal superstar in their midst

Shahid Afridi: prodigious prodigal pro © PA Photos

If ever there was going to be a "Shahid Afridi Rule", you'd imagine it would be in honour of some misdemeanour or other: Thou Shall Not Pirouette on a Length; Thou Shall Not Bite the Ball; that sort of thing. But no, the player perhaps least associated with the establishment of norms in the entire history of cricket managed, during a half-season as substitute pro in the North Staffordshire and South Cheshire League, to lend his name, colloquially at least, to an entirely mundane piece of legislation that nonetheless fundamentally changed the way its clubs operated.

In June 2003, already a seven-year veteran of international cricket and still only 23, Afridi turned up for a two-week stint at Little Stoke, deputising for Justin Kemp, who was at Worcestershire deputising for Andrew Hall, who was with South Africa. He began with a boom-boom, smearing 112 from 70 balls in a straightforward seven-wicket victory.

The following week, the Independent sent a reporter along to the fireworks display:

"The motto on Little Stoke's crest, Non progredi est regredi ('Not to advance is to go back'), seemed made for Afridi. Chauffeured by a local balti magnate, he arrived at Longton in a red cricket shirt bearing the badge of the Non-Descript Club which contains an overflowing pint of ale. The previous day he had played for them in a benefit match at Finchley, and legend already claimed he had placed his sixes between parked cars."

After three tentative prods at Longton's South African pro, a single took Afridi down to face Staffordshire opening bowler David Edwards: "He hit my first ball on the pavilion roof, defended the second, hit the third over the pavilion, and fourth ball I bowled a back-of-the-hand slower ball. He tried to belt it and it lobbed up to point." Thirteen from seven balls in 132 all out: quintessential Afridi, you might say, a player loved and derided in equal measure by Pakistanis, for whom he's either a Pathan daredevil or idiot - with or without the savant.

Afridi went wicketless in a seven-wicket defeat, while Little Stoke's chairman mused that a longer innings might have seen an already sizeable crowd swollen even further, as word spread among the Potteries' many Pakistani taxi drivers. Such a comprehensive victory was certainly a feather in Longton's cap, although it would doubtless have been something of an unwelcome surprise for them to see Afridi striding across the outfield the following week - two cricket bags, each being carried by a flunky - when they arrived for their game at Leek, "the Queen of the Moorlands". With regular pro Albie Morkel nursing an injury and Kemp back at Little Stoke, Leek had been quick to swoop.

This time, Longton declared at a respectable 226 for 7, their skipper Richard Harvey top-scoring with 83. Afridi snared the top three and briefly threatened to blow them away with his fizzing topspinners, vicious drift, and 80mph bouncers (by the time we played Leek I was waiting for this ball and, to the eternal tedium of future team-mates, pulled him for a six into the car park). At 30-odd for 2 in reply, Afridi joined ex-Derbyshire man Tim Tweats. Edwards was again bowling, and again tried an early slower ball: "He defended it and said 'not this time.'"

Main man, cameo or no-show: you'd never know which Afridi would turn up to bat © PA Photos

As the partnership developed, Longton's main spinner got a couple to grip, prompting Harvey to try his own seldom-used left-arm twirlers, a brave or perhaps foolish move on a club ground to one of the world's most celebrated six-hitters. "It seemed Afridi had been waiting for this moment to unleash the carnage," Harvey recalls. "He hit five consecutive sixes off the first five balls of my second over. From memory, a couple didn't clear the boundary by much - in fact, in my defence, one of them was caught at long-off, but he was a yard the wrong side of the line!"

With sweaty palms, Harvey decided to go over the wicket for the final delivery and fire in a leg-side yorker: "Easier said than done when you're at best a part-timer. Anyway, that was the plan. The reality was a knee-high full-toss that should have been dispatched into Leek town centre, but he must have taken his eye off it at the critical time and thankfully toe-ended it down to deep midwicket for one!" With Harvey still counting his blessings, Edwards duly bagged his famous scalp for the second game running, "caught at long-on, six anywhere apart from Leek, although the game was gone. He was nice to me in the bar after, too, saying well bowled and signing an autograph."

Although Longton would eventually win the title, playing back-to-back matches against a game-wrecking megastar was clearly unfair and brought on a bout of head-scratching among the NSSCL's bigwigs. Eventually they would rule that a sub-pro could only play for one club per season, subsequently making the search for adequate deputies in an ever-diminishing pool as difficult as bowling a maiden to Afridi, particularly with stringent post-9/11 UK Border Authority controls.

"The Afridi Rule" certainly caused my club, Moddershall, much angst. In 2008, Imran Tahir was signed by Hampshire in July, though helpful fixtures and his dedication saw him available for all but two of the remaining nine games. The following year Rangana Herath was spirited away mid-season to play against Pakistan after Muttiah Muralitharan suffered a shoulder injury. So for 2010 we decided we needed someone with zero chance of higher honours, and in October signed a Pakistani left-arm pacer with just two first-class appearances to his name. He was seven feet tall, from Gaggu Mandi, and the prospect of him bowling on league decks dilated our sadism glands. Unfortunately - and perhaps unsurprisingly at that altitude - he was unable to remain under the radar for long. First it was PCB training camps, by the summer the ODI squad touring England. Meanwhile, we waited half a season for Asad Ali's visa to clear, scraping the fast-evaporating talent pool for subs (one week we got a tubby 38-year-old offie who played in silver trainers and a NY Yankees baseball cap - worn backwards).

Anyway, a couple of weeks after the Longton double-header, Afridi turned out against his former team-mates at Little Stoke, either side of which he was outperformed by a pair of Lahore-born legspinning Imrans: outbatted by Tahir (then with his previous club), who also had Afridi caught at long-off for a single, and outbowled by Farhat. After that he reeled off three whirlwind half-centuries, on one occasion stumped for 58 while charge-slog-sweeping an opening bowler.

Meanwhile, Audley offspinner Andrew Johnson followed Harvey's suggestion to station all nine on the boundary - a boundary that Leek had even brought in by ten yards, just in case - on the basis that it was absolutely no deterrent whatsoever: "The first ball gripped and he sand-wedged it over long-on for four, who may have sneaked in a bit. I then caught him at long-on for 50-odd and I don't think he stuck around to see the next wicket fall. He was probably home for You've Been Framed."

An Afridi six gets lodged in the roof at New Road, 2001 © PA Photos

It was decidedly odd seeing that familiarly busy, bandy-legged walk to the crease, the gait of a rodeo rider, of someone who indeed saw his job as the brief surfing of some energetic explosion; odd, too, seeing that bouncing, balletic run-up, curtain fringe flapping away like an oil-covered seagull that cannot quite achieve take-off. In fact, playing a club match against the world's most singular and surreal cricketer was so utterly absurd that by the time we got round to playing Leek in what turned out to be his last match for the Moorlanders, I spontaneously intercepted Afridi en route to the crease to ask, in the voice of "Michael Jackson" from cult UK comedy show Bo Selecta!, and apropos of nothing: "Shah-HEED, where the llam-AZE at, shamone?" Cool as ever, he replied: "What is 'llamaze'?" They were llamas.

Having taken 25 balls to make his first 20, he had a wild yahoo at our West Indian pro, Adam Sanford. The ball nipped back and missed the leg bail by a fag paper. (There was a weird feeling of ambivalence: part of you wants him to get 40- or 50-odd, with a couple of mammoth blows, but not to go too crazy.) He smeared, swooshed and swiped his way to 105 not out from 56 balls, sealing the game and his century with his 11th Cape Canaveral-launched maximum. "I see them mind games backfired," quipped a home supporter. A grizzled veteran in our ranks thought the innings "disrespectful", but it was entirely consistent with how he would play in just about any situation, for any team. Foot to the floor. Be damned, speed cameras.

His overall numbers might surprise aficionados and detractors alike, accustomed as they are to his prodigious prodigality with the bat and his streetwise tightness with the ball. In 11 games he smote 565 runs at 63, yet had an unspectacular combined bowling analysis of 135-27-433-17, with a best of 4 for 67 against us. Despite Afridi's efforts, that was only their second victory with him in the ranks, and with Leek still not mathematically safe from relegation they flew Morkel in for the final game at a cost of £1000. It was extravagant in 2003; even more so after the "Afridi Rule" was established.

Scott Oliver tweets here

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