As Shaheen Shah Afridi
trots in to bowl to Virat Kohli, it's difficult to imagine a more favourable scenario for Pakistan. The premier T20 fast bowler in the world - his prime years ahead of him - faces up to Kohli, whose prime years are almost certainly behind him. By his lofty standards, Kohli's had a torrid time of it of late, especially so in this shortest format, where the refinement of his game increasingly looks like an anachronism in the age of power hitting. India need 48 off three overs, and Afridi's been brought on to kill off the game.
But there's something not quite right here. Afridi lumbers in as if encumbered, and when he gets into his stride, appears to labour through his delivery motion. There's little intensity or heat to the deliveries themselves, as if only getting the ball down the other end is the priority right now. He misses the short ball, he misses the yorker, and he misses his line. He doesn't hit 140 kph once. And Kohli smashes three boundaries off him, India help themselves to 17 in the over. The momentum swings away from Pakistan, and India end up winning a classic
A few days earlier, sat in his room, Afridi had begun to worry. He'd suffered a ligament injury in his right knee
in July during a Test match against Sri Lanka, but fairly inept management of his injury
meant it wouldn't be properly diagnosed until a month after. Even then, somewhat bizarrely, he spent some time travelling with the team before being sent to London for specialist treatment. It saw him miss the Asia Cup and the seven-match series against England.
But Pakistan's record of nursing fast bowlers back to health is far from glowing; just about any injury can end up career-threatening. As recently as 2020, Hasan Ali
's career looked in existential danger
thanks to the repeated flare-up of a back injury that never seemed like it was properly diagnosed and treated. Mohammad Zahid
's back injury killed off a fledging career, while inveterate knee troubles brought a premature end to Junaid Khan
's time with the national side.
So Afridi's concern wasn't just for the length of time he'd be away, but how high he could soar post-recovery. By that metric, his performance against India, and a similarly pedestrian showing against Zimbabwe
, might have been his worst nightmares come to life.
"I am trying," he said after the final group match against Bangladesh
. "I can't say I'm bowling at full tilt, and I can't say I'm bowling 150 [kph] like Haris Rauf. I used to bowl 135-140 [kph] even before injury anyway. But I used to feel a pinch during my run-up. I'm feeling better, but when you don't play cricket for two months, just sit in your room
focusing on your injury any cricketer or athlete would begin to wonder how you'd come back. On top of that, there's a World Cup, too so of course you have those doubts."
Rushing a Pakistan fast bowler back from a ligament injury feels like an incredibly reckless move, though it appears Afridi wouldn't countenance missing out on another shot at a World Cup title. And he only sat there for the press conference after the Bangladesh game because he had turned that form upside down, taking 8 for 55 runs in his last 11 overs, including two top-order wickets against South Africa
that see Pakistan storm to victory in a must-win match.
But it is against New Zealand in the semi-final
that Afridi puts any concerns over a long-term decline to bed. Tearing in with a packed SCG roaring him on, he overwhelms New Zealand's best hope of victory, Finn Allen, in a moment that will take pride of place among Afridi's legion of first-over triumphs
Backing his strength, the full, inswinging ball at pace, he doesn't back down against Allen, even after he's driven back down the ground first ball. He pitches it up again, getting the inside edge next ball before beating the bat completely off the third ball, felling him lbw. It isn't just that Afridi takes a first-over wicket, but does so purely on his terms. A mentally weakened Afridi would not have tried that mode of dismissal; a physically encumbered one simply could not have.
Even at the death, Afridi no longer seems the sad shadow of himself he appeared to be while bowling to Kohli on that day that took Pakistan to the brink of elimination. In three matches since, his economy rate in overs 16 to 20 is 4.75, and he takes a wicket every 4.75 runs he concedes. That's not just leaps and bounds better than that Kohli death over - the only one he bowled in the first two games - but also a vast improvement on his career numbers - an economy rate of 8.76 while averaging 17.32. Somehow, impossibly, Afridi seems to have gone from injury rust to purple patch all within the span of a fortnight.
Lionising an athlete's prowess for playing through pain or injury can be problematic, but Afridi's determination to force his way into the equation for a World Cup campaign was never really in question. When he races in - and it won't be a lumber this time - to bowl that first ball to Jos Buttler in the World Cup final at the MCG, there's little doubt in his mind that it's all been worth it. Shaheen Afridi always seemed to be built differently, but in his return from injury, it looks as if that might almost literally be true.