May 2005: Columns May 24, 2005

The mature lunatic



Finally Shahid Afridi is hurting the opposition consistently © Getty Images

I almost feel ashamed to admit this but when Shahid Afridi is out, I'm not sure I want to watch anymore. I feel the same when Virender Sehwag is heading back to the pavilion. Many of you will consider this cricketing heresy but there is something so compelling, so magnetic about these two remarkable cricketers that the rest blend into a mass of predictability. Afridi, in particular, is a pure crowd pleaser. At last I understand why Pathans exit the stadium in disgust as soon as an Afridi innings finishes.

Like a whirlwind, Afridi came out of nowhere. A barely noticed tournament in Kenya saw his debut, a 16-year-old legspinner who clubbed the fastest-ever one-day century in his first international innings. Where does a career go after that? Afridi has spent the subsequent years playing like a man hellbent on obliterating his own record. He has attracted scathing criticism - all of it unfair - for this madcap pursuit, owing both to his ability and his temperament.

What Afridi's game has always lacked, though, is consistency and that may just be beginning to emerge as he comes to feel he is a central part of the team instead of a bandit thrown in to mug the opposition. Credit, then, goes to Inzamam-ul-Haq and Bob Woolmer for giving Afridi the peace of mind to play the way his brain tells him to.

Other factors have been crucial to Afridi's development. At times during the recent Test series against India, he was the most threatening Pakistani bowler. His bowling can sometimes be haphazard and careless but Afridi's realisation that his bowling contributions can be significant has helped him settle into his batting role. With more attention and focus to his bowling Afridi could become a truly formidable international cricketer, secure in the knowledge that he has more to offer than just the slog. This all-round utility spreads to the field where he remains one of Pakistan's best and most enthusiastic fielders.

Yet there have been periods when Afridi's stock has dropped alarmingly. With his high-risk approach Afridi is an easy scapegoat, and this young man - amazing that we can still say that after he has been almost a decade in international cricket - deserves credit for the way he has always returned wholeheartedly, and more importantly stuck to his game, unbowed by failure. When those periods of exclusion have been long, he has sought to improve his game in England and South Africa, both with considerable success.

What emerges then is a picture of an exciting cricketer, brave and determined, loyal and team-oriented, an allrounder of world class, in many ways an essential component of any successful international team.

Nor is he just an ambitious bludgeoner. The Afridi innings that sticks in my mind is that controlled, almost orthodox, century he engineered to help Pakistan win at Chennai in 1999. You could see a man fighting his basest impulses but playing beautifully straight, with an iron will to win.

Indeed India has been good to Afridi but recent success in Australian, English, and South African conditions suggest that he has been cruelly ridiculed and underestimated as a flat-track bully, a one-trick show pony. His performances in the last two series against India and Australia must fill him with confidence and satisfaction; they have been a sweet rebuff to critics who are apt to rubbish him before engaging their brains. The magic of Afridi, of course, is that the next series could be a complete disaster.

Players who are one nervous impulse away from madness are always the most enthralling, but there is something different about the Shahid Afridi who emerged in Australia and developed in India. He wore the air of a man confident in his powers and at ease with his role in the side, a mature cricketer in mind and action. It is this new-found maturity that is marking him - almost unbelievably - as a future captain of Pakistan. Now that cricket and politics are inextricably linked, it may also be President Musharraf's cunning plan to pacify Pakistan's North West Frontier.

Kamran Abbasi is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine