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June 20, 2009
At the very heart of Pakistan's invigorating run to a second successive World Twenty20 final has been a player you might think was put on the planet to play Twenty20 cricket. A three-four over bash with the bat, a quick four-over spell hustled through the middle overs and some adrenaline-fuelled cheerleading in the field: thanks very much, Shahid Afridi.
Having been the Player of the Tournament in the inaugural World Twenty20 in 2007, Afridi was expected to be a key component again this time. His form in the immediate run-up to the tournament, especially with ball in hand, had been outstanding and even with the bat, against Australia, a brief vigour had re-emerged. And with ten wickets, 122 runs, potentially the catch of the tournament and a semi-final all-round performance to match any, Afridi has again staked his claim for top individual honours.
The catch to dismiss Scott Styris off Umar Gul, running back to long-on and taking it at full-stretch over his shoulder - "any player, any piece of fielding, batting or bowling, can do that," said Afridi - was the moment at which Pakistan's tournament turned. And he followed it up with what he considers to be among his best individual performances against South Africa. "Without a doubt it's up there. I've put in some good matches in the past, but to do it in such a big-game, in a semi, against such a strong side, it has to be up there," Afridi told Cricinfo. "Wickets were down, the pressure was on and it was such an occasion, it makes it very special."
The improvement in Afridi's bowling has been among the more remarkable sights in cricket, all the variety, threat and control apparent in his spell of 2 for 16 against South Africa. As significant have been three contributions with the bat, culminating with an eminently sensible 51 in the semi-final. "I don't know if I'm at my peak with the ball but certainly I've put a lot more effort into it. Nothing extraordinary, just hard work," he said.
"I used to think of myself as a batsman three to four years ago because that is how everyone started to think of me. But I was moved around so much the order that I just went back to concentrating on bowling. I told Younis I wanted to bat up the order and it worked."
Pakistan's surge to a second successive final has been vastly different in nature to the relatively smooth progress of two years ago. Four of their six games have been do-or-die, performances have oscillated and it has resembled more 1992. "Playing in the UK is much different to surfaces in South Africa or Australia," Afridi said. "We arrived here later than most other countries as well and it took us time to adjust to the atmosphere. We've picked up day by day and we've got that momentum now. Our big advantage was that we played two big sides [India and South Africa] in the warm-ups. Sure we lost to them but it was good to have those games."
Younis Khan's influence as captain has also come under the scanner. Even though he is the side's top scorer, his comments at the start of the tournament - that this was all a bit of fun - have attracted scorn. Ex-chief selector Abdul Qadir's comments, that Younis wouldn't have been in the World Cup squad had he had his way, didn't help. Typically, Afridi has brushed aside the criticism.
"As far as I know Younis, I don't think how his statement came out in the press was how he intended it," said Afridi. "You often say something and it gets misinterpreted totally. The best thing about Younis has been his positivity. He is not scared of anything and he hasn't allowed pressure to affect the side. Mentally he is very strong."
Only one game remains now and even if Pakistan have achieved more than anyone expected them to, there appears no let up among the side. "Personally I never lost hope [of reaching this far]. I've played this whole tournament as I've played all my life - that each and every match is my first and last match and that I have to give it my all.
"The way I do it on the field, people can see. The aggressiveness, motivating bowlers, other fielders, I've always done it and if we, as a team, go into the final with the kind of body language that we did in the semis, we can go in confident."
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