Afridi's brilliance worth all the heartbreaks
Eleven supremely fit and ruthlessly efficient cricketers, on top of their game, had their dreams of a first-ever world title ended by one audacious man. That cricket is a team game is an oft repeated cliché but South Africa were eliminated from the World Twenty20 at Trent Bridge solely because of Shahid Afridi's intensity and all-round skill.
Pakistan were yet to win a game against significant opposition in the tournament because of a team performance. They lost to England and Sri Lanka, beat minnows Netherlands and Ireland, and relied on Umar Gul to rout New Zealand. Their players hadn't contributed collectively and so it was unlikely all 11 players would maximise potential against opponents as able as South Africa. To have a hope of playing at Lord's on Sunday, Pakistan needed individual brilliance from one of their matchwinners: probably Gul, possibly Younis Khan, or perhaps Misbah-ul-Haq.
Instead, it came from Afridi. Pakistan and Afridi supporters always hope that it will come from him. They roar him to the crease, brimming with optimism, hoping he will destroy the opposition with his recklessly cavalier approach. Thousands of fans celebrated his arrival at the crease at Trent Bridge after Pakistan had lost Shahzaib Hasan in the second over.
Did they know that Afridi's last half-century, in any format of the game, came 28 innings ago, against Zimbabwe at Multan in 2008? And the one before that was 19 innings earlier, against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi in 2007? It didn't matter, for when it comes to Afridi, there's always reason to hope. He'll disappoint more often than not, but his successes are so spectacular that it's worth the heartbreaks.
Afridi batted at No. 6 during the initial stages of the World Twenty20 and having to necessarily find the boundary immediately didn't work for him. He made 5 against England, holing out to mid-on, was bowled for 13 by Dirk Nannes against Netherlands, and was dismissed for a first-ball duck against Sri Lanka. Pakistan decided to push him up to No. 5 against New Zealand and he made 29 low-pressure runs off 18 balls, and 24 off 13 balls at No 3 against Ireland. Afridi said Younis supported him fully, put no pressure on him, and asked him to bat higher in the order, only requesting that he take his time and not attempt impractical risks like trying to pull Muttiah Muralitharan into orbit off his first delivery.
On first evidence at Trent Bridge, Afridi appeared not to heed that request, whacking his first ball, from Wayne Parnell, over mid-on for four. He was bristling with aggression when Jacques Kallis tested his skill against the short ball. Afridi was beaten by the first couple but pulled two out of the following three to the midwicket boundary. Kallis walked up to him and stared and Afridi's response was an attempt to get under the skin of the bowler. "He [Kallis] came close to me, I gave him a kiss," Afridi said. "A flying kiss."
Afridi's posture had betrayed disappointment when Kamran Akmal fell off his 12th ball, having scored 23 off the first 11, by top-edging a pull to mid-on. Afridi had also started quickly, scoring 15 off nine, but wasn't about to go the Akmal way. No risks were taken immediately after the fielding restrictions were lifted, Afridi being content with working the ball cleverly into gaps to score at a run a ball.
Not until the 11th over did he cut loose, against Johan Botha, and his execution was precise. Three times in a row Afridi made room by moving towards leg, and all three times he placed the ball into the gap on the extra cover boundary. And when Graeme Smith reinforced his field, Afridi played the deftest of late cuts to take 18 off the over. His first moment of indiscretion was also his last for an ill-timed swipe across the line against JP Duminy's first ball went straight in the air. Trent Bridge reverberated with applause as Afridi returned to the dugout, having scored 51 off 34 balls. And he was only half done.
While Afridi's batting has deteriorated over the last couple of years, his bowling has been vital to Pakistan's limited-over success. He even told Cricinfo that he rates himself as a bowler first. So unlike his batting, Afridi's legspin was in top form during the World Twenty20 with eight wickets and an economy of less than six an over, going into the game against South Africa.
Buoyed by his batting, Afridi's high intensity levels kept him in the thick of the action. He appeared stunned after Gul dropped Smith and hit his head on the ground, standing motionless for a few moments before realising the ball needed to be collected, and then attended to his injured team-mate. He was given the ball in the seventh over and found rhythm immediately, getting one to turn, bounce and rip past Kallis' bat. Gibbs watched that from the non-striker's end and so pushed forward, playing away from his body for the legbreak, a ball later. It didn't turn. Instead it fizzed off the pitch and skidded straight through, knocking back off stump.
Afridi had an edge put down by Kamran Akmal off AB de Villiers in his next over. Unfazed, he forced the batsmen to play on the next ball, and celebrated in trademark style: running to the side of the pitch, standing upright with his chest proudly out, a knowing grin on his face and his right hand raised in triumph while his team-mates rushed in from all corners of the outfield. As they mobbed him, the DJ got the crowd going by playing Dil Dil Pakistan.
Afridi finished with 2 for 16 to go with his half-century. After he was done, Saeed Ajmal dismissed Kallis, Gul bowled a succession of yorkers, and Mohammad Aamer kept his cool when entrusted with the final over. There was no doubt, though, why Pakistan had won. It was obvious from the number of times Smith mentioned Afridi's name during the post-match press conference without even being specifically asked.
George Binoy is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo