Osman Samiuddin

Afridi: a Pakistani sort of hero

Enlightenment and order take a walk when he delivers the rare performance that brings the country together like nothing else can

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Shahid Afridi roars after hitting the winning six, India v Pakistan, Asia Cup, Mirpur, March 2, 2014

You have to see it to believe it  •  AFP

I'm quite enjoying this stats assault from the Asia Cup broadcaster. Some of it is a bit much, especially when they veer into, you know, real statistics and start messing with probabilities (Pakistan may win 78% of matches in which Mohammad Hafeez takes two wickets and scores 30 or more, but if he's taken 2 for 78 in a total of 360 and got out for 30, then that percentage is pretty pointless). Mostly, though, it has been refreshing and has saved us all the hassle of getting on Statsguru during a match.
What I wanted it to do on Sunday night was tell me about Shahid Afridi. I wanted it to tell me about Afridi and the last five balls for which he was on the pitch. I wanted to be shown fancy numbers about the likelihood of Pakistan winning after Afridi crosses over off the last ball of the penultimate over to get off strike and not being there for the first ball of the last over when 10 are needed, two wickets are in hand and he is the man charged with winning it. And then when, because of him, Saeed Ajmal is bowled off the very first ball and that leaves Afridi needing, at best, 9 off four balls. And then Junaid Khan picking up the most important single in Pakistan's history since Tauseef Ahmed did. The chances of that single itself could not have been very high, given his last ten innings: 2 not out, 0, 4, 0, 4, 1 not out, 0 not out, 1 not out, 0, 1 not out.
But the real figure I wanted to see was the probability of two familiar and successive Afridi mistimed hits going for six, in the last over, winning a game, winning the game to win (the Asia Cup merely being an excuse to see Pakistan play India). What were the chances, eh? Of that scythe over extra cover (ish) and that cross-batted heave that somehow goes towards long-on (ish) going over the rope, when they both for so long held the same illusory quality that Misbah-ul-Haq's paddle in Johannesburg in 2007 did? They had to drop into a fielder's hands, right? At least one? When they fell over it felt like only a great surge of belief and prayer had pushed them over. Where, I asked, were the calculations of this scenario?
Every time Afridi wins with the bat, and not necessarily the match itself, Enlightenment has lost. And you know what? The Age of Ignorance throws a pretty mean party. I don't mind that cricket has become more meticulous and better-planned, that coaches generate and deploy vast amounts of data in pursuit of a workable, repeatable formula for success. That broadcasters throw all kinds of information at me. In his own way, even Misbah has tried to take Pakistan into, if not the age of reason, then one of relative order and calm at least. Bless him, post-match he even tried to ascribe Afridi's innings to a plan. It is natural in something that is taken so seriously as sport.
But it's good to know that chaos cannot be permanently defeated, no matter how much we try to order ourselves. It's good to know that even the Deep Blue supercomputers in English cricket's country-sized backroom can be made redundant. (Incidentally, the last Pakistani to win a game against India by one wicket with a six in the last over - Javed Miandad, in case you'd forgotten, or are dead - said that his brain was working like a computer that day). Some things we cannot know or plan for, and many things we cannot account for, ever. Oxygen plays a big part in keeping us alive but I'd venture that this not knowing, not understanding and the search to change that is vital too. Else what are we here for? And if too often at the end of our striving to know, to understand, we come to heartache and strife, then the joy of coming to as inexplicable an incident as Afridi winning a game against India with the bat in the last over is a joy that cannot be matched.
To know it has happened once and to anticipate being alive the day it happens again is what makes Afridi's batting so compelling. Not too many people will have seen that first, record-breaking hundred he made in Nairobi in 1996, or not live at least. But the thought of seeing something as plain ridiculous as that? I was in Kanpur the day he made that 45-ball hundred against India in 2005. I saw it with my eyes and I couldn't believe what he had done. I got an SMS from Rahul Bhattacharya shortly after the innings and it being a decade and several handsets later, I recreate as best as memory can. "I never could believe the Nairobi hundred was true because I couldn't imagine a 37-ball hundred, but now I can." In other words, you have to see it to believe it, but I would also venture reversing that, especially for Pakistanis who have waited for Afridi's every innings to be so: you have to really believe that he can do it, for the payoff of seeing it.
I recently wrote a piece for ESPNcricinfo's anthology on Sachin Tendulkar. Towards the end, what struck me most about Tendulkar, much more than his batting, was his status as an unqualified hero. In Pakistan I always felt - and loved the fact - that we consider heroes to be a figment of the imagination, a whimsy of the privileged in a hard, mean world. Using Jinnah, the Bhuttos, and the Khans, Jahangir and Imran, to illustrate this tendency, I argued that Pakistan didn't, or couldn't, have the kind of hero Tendulkar was.
Fool was I to not even consider Afridi, who represents something about the modern soul of Pakistan as vividly as anybody. No current cricketer in Pakistan is as popular. He has many, many detractors, sure, and many who don't take him at all seriously. But who else has, in the last decade, brought an entire country together this exhilaratingly as often as Afridi, even if it isn't nearly as often as we'd like? Maybe he isn't a hero but today, on a day that marks five years of the darkest doom to have struck Pakistan cricket, he has managed to make Pakistan fret about it a little less, even if briefly. If that is not heroic then I'm not sure what is.
PS: Because this is what everyone should do, my personal favourite of the 34 runs (one for each year of his age, neatly) was the sweep (!), stepping outside off stump to Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the 47th over, to place it between square leg and short fine leg. I saw it and I still don't believe it.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National