Afridi's grand entrance
The entrance was gladiatorial. Chest out, arms swinging loose, weapon in hand, baying crowd, opponent primed; at 201 for 4, the first day of the Faisalabad Test waited to be seized when, appropriately, entered Shahid Afridi. Eighty-one minutes later, he had wrested it, giving shape to a day that had until then been neither here nor there.
By the time Ian Bell jogged in to deliver Afridi his third ball, the din strengthening with every step the bowler took, he had already outscored Hasan Raza's entire Multan contribution (he said later of his exclusion in the last Test, "I understood the strategy behind picking him for the last Test. I wasn't unhappy but am glad to be back in the side.") The previous ball , he had plonked his front foot down, not in line or to the pitch of anything in particular, and scooped high and loopy over long-off for four. That third ball he drove straight over Inzamam's head into the boundary and, as unquenched as the crowd, he sliced to the point boundary the ball after. If he could have reached his first ball, so wide it was, he would have conjured something similar. With that, before anyone could take it in, he was away and something familiar was up.
It's almost pointless to ask whether he came in with a plan, bearing in mind the delicacy of the situation. "I just decided to play my game the way I do when I came in. I thought if I play defensively and get out then we would be in greater trouble. The wicket was good and the ball was coming onto the bat nicely."
After his initial burst, he mellowed briefly. Finally, to his sixth ball, came his first defensive stroke, allowing Inzamam, on completion of his fifty, some adoration. Afridi then introspected, allowing Flintoff a glimpse of his defensive repertoire. Replacing Bell with Harmison seemed to calm him still further, until abruptly, he stepped out and slogged him over midwicket for six as if it were still Bell. All of ten minutes since his arrival and already lunacy swarmed the game.
Flintoff was given further respect, Afridi defending to gleefully ironic applause. Once he faltered, with a swish and miss in a tight over, prompting Inzamam to consider a captainly mid-pitch discussion. He ambled down halfway, thought better of offering advice and walked back. When Udal came on a little later, Inzamam went through with the discussion and as the crowd, the press box, all of Faisalabad, Pakistan even, yearned for the inevitable, Afridi declined. But for how long?
Strategies changed, fielders spread, in came 7-2 fields and a wide off-stump line. A chance came and went as Vaughan dropped at cover. Udal, more confident, came in again only this time Afridi simultaneously unburdened himself, while rubbing it in to Vaughan, charging down and straight-batting high over the press box, onto the roof. Fifty partnership registered, of which Afridi had scored 41. In the same over, he swept. For six. His own fifty came with a pull for two, off 46 balls and he celebrated by smiting Udal for another six and then cheekily gliding Flintoff in dying light for four.
Just like that, 300 for 4, momentum shifted, complexion changed, day seized and match tweaked. As he has been doing since his recall eighteen months ago, Afridi came in as the bit-part fixer and he fixed. Ludicrously, he was asked whether he would settle down to play a long innings now that he was in. "I haven't thought about playing a long innings. I just want to take it ball by ball. We want to make at least 400."
With tongue wedged firmly in cheek, another asked whether he can ever play defensively to which he replied, earnestly, no. "Even if someone was to offer you a million dollars?" A little pause, a smile, then, "maybe." But even then, implied the smile, you wouldn't bet on it.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo