Mad, bad and dangerous
Ah, Mr Afridi. Come in, I've been expecting you. Take the couch there, get comfortable and let's begin. Let's talk about you. Now, it says you have been erratic in the past? Restless, hyperactive, short attention span, poor concentration and discipline, too aggressive, never stable? Success came early in your life, like for pop stars, and it would be fair to say, would it not, that you have struggled with that?
Reports I have read indicate that you have repeatedly, and often spectacularly, failed to fulfill what, by all accounts, is immense potential. They suggest you have been reckless with your gifts, predictable only in your alarmingly poor judgement of situations and context. Possibly you have had too many people trying to tell you what to do. And you may not have received the kind of counselling and the confidence someone of your gifts might feel entitled to. But it does appear that there has been some improvement in the last year - a period of introspection, perhaps, or even maturity? Tell me, do you have any regrets?
It seems a fitting way to start with Shahid Afridi. "What do you mean?" he slaps back.
"You could've done better with what you had?"
"Obviously, I haven't fulfilled what talent I had. I have made mistakes and others have, too, with me."
It is unlikely that more fascinating places exist than the space inside Afridi's head. Inside, you may discover, among other curiosities, the workings of an intricate and unique hand-eye coordination mechanism. You may happen upon a decision-making process so garbled and flawed as to be redundant.
Above all, you may untangle why - and how - he manages to play the game as he does. How, in a time of the model professional athlete and sport as occupation, has he come out to the field, intermittently, for nine years and treated his job as little more than an extension of a galli knockabout? And how - in an era where batsmen such as Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis have striven to better themselves with cold purpose - can Afridi come out and, bluntly, just try to belt the shit out of every ball he faces, disregarding vagaries of length, swing, line, bowler, context?
Take an example, a recent one even. He has bullied 59 in as many balls at Kolkata, the day is eight balls from its conclusion, the opposition rattled, a day to go, and a target that could, if he stays, become gettable. Instead of staying on, he chooses to top-edge a sweep off Anil Kumble straight to fine leg, placed expressly for that shot. So you ask him from where he summons this exhilarating ignorance, this disdain, this negation of common sense and convention.
"Honestly, I go out thinking I'll bat five or six overs sensibly and after that open up. But I get there, the bowler starts running in and I immediately start thinking 'Smash it'. My mind just goes. I suppose I have no control over myself." Or maybe it is blinding over-confidence, an 'impossible doesn't exist'-type confidence.
So it's all his making then; he is solely responsible for the way he is now? If only it was that black and white. No, for as you rummage through his head, you find that Afridi is as much the consequence of others as he is of himself. Shunted in and out of the team, the fear of being dropped lingering permanently, floated around the team, unsure where he fits in best, being told by everyone and their chacha how to bat; this has shaped him just as much.
His scars are public, deep and multifarious. His talk is peppered with references to them: "I have always batted under extreme pressure ... Every tour has felt like the last, actually every two I thought, this is my last ... Lack of confidence from coaches hasn't helped ... Lots of doubts creep into your mind when you're dropped constantly; you start looking for excuses when sometimes you should acknowledge that it isn't meant to happen." And so it goes.
Imagine playing through most of your career like this. Forget cricket, imagine working in an organisation for nine years and still being unsure of where you stand. How else can he be if not the way he is?
But in the last year, something has happened. Something that has evoked the sort of feeling that comes after you take big - but correct - decisions, when it dawns on you and gnaws at you that everything that went before was utterly wrong. You knew it then but wouldn't admit it. So it is with Afridi. We all knew he needed support and confidence when he frustrated and floundered, yet it was easier to ignore him. Now that he has been given that backing and has responded, we can admit it.
"I have been given a lot of confidence by the coach and captain since I came back into the team last year. When they back you openly, it is a big thing. Just to know that they won't drop you after two games - it has happened often enough to me. Look at [Virender] Sehwag. Even when he fails they back him and look what he does," he explains.
As Bob Woolmer says, with players like Afridi it isn't so much about technique as about goal-setting: "I don't care how you go about it, this is what I need from you today." And Afridi has responded with gusto. "Bob's excellent in that he keeps spirits up. If I smack two sixes and then get out, I'm feeling miserable anyway, so instead of moaning about the shot I got out to, he praises the two sixes. He doesn't let your spirits flag. Occasionally he makes suggestions about where your feet were when you played your last shot, but never too much."
It's so simple that what has preceded it in his career is almost shameful. He talks so often about this confidence, he emphasises it so, that you wonder what a multitude of coaches have been doing with him. Over the last year, a secure Afridi has become, belatedly, indispensable to the Pakistan squad. His rebirth found violent culmination in Kanpur's 45-ball mayhem in April. He returned, through a combination of injuries and sheer irrepressibility, to the Test side as well. In a team of heroes at Bangalore, he stood out, for his wickets on the final day and, crucially, for his crazed assault on time on the fourth afternoon.
But redemption has encompassed more than just that. We know, after all, that his batting, when the karma is right and the yin and the yang aligned, is unmatched for spectacle and effect. But his figures in ODIs during that period are still fairly modest: a batting and bowling average of 30-odd, although he has picked up, with his quirky legspin, 30-odd wickets.
No, this year has been about the sum of his various essences, on the field. He has been in everyone's face - mildly threatening, breaking through, scoring crucial runs, turning games, playing games within games, cheerleading, celebrating, fingers never far from floppy hair, always in the game and, usually, right in the thick of it. Even when fielding afar on the boundary, he has been in it, openly asking batsmen to run seconds and test his arm. Rarely, and never this prolonged, has his machismo seemed so alive, so vivid, so contagious on the field.
Perversely now, the Kanpur blitz might not be the best thing, given the impact his very first international innings had on him and the definition it has thrust. A 37-ball 100 - or a 45-ball one - is scarcely believable in a mohalla against kids, let alone in an international match. Not many people have seen what he did on October 4, 1996, but most remember it and many live in constant expectation of repeats.
Afridi's memories of it are understandably hazy. "I hit a couple of good sixes off Murali. I was just told to play my game. I had no idea what had happened when I got back to the dressing room. The boys came to congratulate me on my world record but I had no idea what it meant until I got back to Pakistan."
The innings weighs heavily on him, like the Kanpur one might now, gently haunting his career. "I still have pressure on me to perform like that every time I step out to bat. It's too much, people always expecting it from me. I'm learning now just to contribute to the team and not be a burden on them." This he said the night before his Kanpur innings, and if people were coming to terms with his mortality then, they might not be anymore.
That innings in Kenya also changed his core as a cricketer. Until that day Afridi was a legspinner who could throw his bat; in his own words, he was a "zabardast" bowler. He was called to the Pakistan squad in Nairobi as replacement for Mushtaq Ahmed, fresh from a 10-wicket haul as vice-captain against West Indies U-19 in Barbados.
Until then, he had progressed on the strength of his bowling. He moved to Karachi from Peshawar, where he was born, in 1982. Street cricket beckoned and eventually, so too did Shadab Cricket Club, one of the biggest in Karachi. Afridi was spotted and picked for Karachi U-19. In the 1995-96 season, he emerged as leading wicket-taker, and moderate run-scorer, in the National Juniors Cup. Salim Altaf, then chief selector, called him to the senior squad, lack of first-class experience regardless. "I used to work harder on my bowling - that was what I was, but after that innings, the focus changed completely," Afridi explains. Even after he broke into the national team, then, no one was quite sure what he might be better at!
Above all, the Kenya innings changed his life. To have achieved what he did at the age of 16, to receive the acclaim, adulation, the trappings of celebrity, you're bound to, as he admits, "get messed up a little". It didn't help either, that there was no one to groom him, advise him, protect him, keep him grounded and help him lead as normal a life as possible. "You know, if one or two people are trying to help you, it's not so bad. But if, like in Pakistan, the whole country has an opinion, who do you listen to? Everyone has their own advice here."
He derailed, leading a "mad life. It was quite disturbed. I was going out a lot, night and day, I didn't know whether I was coming or going, losing focus on the game." Many thought him too arrogant. But somehow, as he stumbled along, as so many errant sportsmen admirably - albeit tediously - do, reformation came.
Off the field, as on it, Afridi doesn't do stillness - moving, fidgeting, playing with his iPod, the TV remote, the voice recorder, his hair, something, anything. In everything, "thori jaldi hai," ("there is urgency"): scoring runs, interviews, meals, talking. Although nothing about his physical demeanour suggests it, he says he is more relaxed now, so he must be talking of peace of mind. This new-found calm was apparent once during the India series, ironically at Kanpur. At the non-striker's end he stood, in the 14th over, approaching his 100, both arms with gloves off, swinging freely. Apart from that, he was still, maybe this time taking in, understanding, what he was accomplishing.
"I am more relaxed now. I'll keep playing and enjoying cricket and lose sleep the night before a game. But off the field, I won't let it cause tension anymore." And if he gets dropped again? "No masla. It happens." Maybe it is, as he says, marriage and kids that have "provided discipline and maturity". As if to prove it, a beard resides on his still-boyish visage.
I ask him - I don't know why other than for affirmation - whether he is a patient man. He laughs. "If I was, would I bat the way I did?" His batting probably mirrors his personality more than for most cricketers. There is no refinement in attitude or judgement, just manic rush; his love for hitting the ball overpowers any other emotion.
In most of Afridi's strokes there seems little sophistication. Most, but not all; when he hits straight, high or skimming the grass, he has no technique - as most know the term. The hand-eye coordination, straightness of blade - and the firmness of intention behind it - render technique impotent as they did when he brought up his 50 in Kanpur with a defensive push, arrow-straight down the ground off Zaheer Khan. Next ball, as if vindictively, he reverted to a hideous, shameless cross-batted slog near midwicket for six.
His forearms are not Popeye-esque, but they aren't far off. And though reports of the bone-crunching strength of his handshake may have been exaggerated, there is frightening power in his wrists. Among his record 204 sixes in ODIs, a recent one stands out. It was to a goodish-length ball from Shane Watson in the VB series final at Melbourne, and Afridi met it outside off, crouching, with a little flick of his wrists. It was a quasi-sweep but it sailed over. In India, off his hips, thighs and toes, to square or fine leg, he flicked with the best of them. Sometimes he square-drove or cut, and fleetingly he appeared conventional.
Not that it matters to him. "Cricket has changed. This is not the age of Hanif Mohammad - no disrespect - where feet must move with the bat like in a manual. You look at players like [Abdul] Razzaq or [Sanath] Jayasuriya who defy all that." Coaches have come, tried and left, Afridi has remained Afridi. "I don't listen because I have played like this forever. My batting has been maar-dhaar from childhood. I loved hitting the ball then and do so now.
"Subcontinent pitches help. Because the ball doesn't bounce, you tend to hit forward rather than square. I am good in the 'V' and my forearms help. I use my bottom hand more, although generally the top hand should get used more ... What's better? You have to speak to a proper batsman and ask."
And we're back: how can he be like this, still? And have a career strike-rate in ODIs of 107 (over 200 matches)? Is there no other like him? Even among freaks like Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist, is Afridi freakish still?
He prompts many questions, about the game and otherwise. Should you be judged, as a cricketer, only on consistency? In fact, given what he has done and is doing now, how important is consistency? Should you let him just get on with it, or should you work with him and mould him? Nature or nurture?
How good can he be? How good could he have been? None have an answer and perhaps it doesn't matter. Maybe we shouldn't expect anything of him as you wouldn't from a loved one. Maybe he is Pakistan cricket's serial one-night stand, not a love affair. Each time he leaves, there is guilt, a feeling of having been cheated, embarrassment, emptiness, and even indifference. But when he's around, in Nairobi, Kanpur, Chennai, Bangalore, there's nothing quite like him. That has to be treasured for what it is, no more, no less.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo