Matches (16)
IPL (3)
Pakistan vs New Zealand (1)
ACC Premier Cup (1)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (4)
WI 4-Day (2)

Shaheen: Local players huge deal for us at Lahore Qalandars

The fast bowler does not entertain the thought that overseas players' unavailability is diminishing PSL's allure

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Shaheen Shah Afridi has led Lahore Qalandars to consecutive titles  •  AFP/Getty Images

Shaheen Shah Afridi has led Lahore Qalandars to consecutive titles  •  AFP/Getty Images

Shaheen Shah Afridi's early rise has been meteoric, but for anyone who'd watched him through his early years, not necessarily surprising. The franchise that helped him burst onto the scene has seen its fortunes blossom in tandem with their captain's, but viewers of the early seasons will tell you there was nothing inevitable about that.
"When, in any country or franchise, local players play in a team, that side does very well," Afridi tells ESPNcricinfo. "I think that's the biggest secret. When Lahore Qalandars started the PDP [Player Development Programme], we found players from all over the country. Sameen bhai, Atif bhai [the owners] and Aqib [Javed, head coach] worked very hard and they gave LQ and Pakistan very good players. There are more coming through this year. The local players who were given opportunities performed and won matches for Pakistan, and that was a huge deal for us."
There's a frequent misconception Afridi emerged onto the scene through the Qalandars' PDP. Though this is technically untrue - he was within the system and played an Under-19 World Cup for Pakistan before his first game with the Qalandars - it is with the PSL franchise that he emerged onto wider Pakistani consciousness. He would bowl perhaps the greatest PSL spell in history, figures of 3.4-1-4-5 snapping a six-match losing streak, and launching a career that barely looked back since. In Afridi's words, Lahore "gave me a platform".
It is a platform he's put to good use. He was appointed Qalandars captain two years earlier, and led his side to the title both years, turning the franchise from the least successful in the PSL to the most. We're speaking on the eve of the start of the ninth season. He simply smiles and offers an insouciant "why not" when the topic of three in a row comes up, a feat achieved only by Jaffna Kings in all of T20 franchise-league history.
Some of that optimism may have been dented by two defeats to start the season, but the format of the competition means there's enough time before any franchise runs out of road. "We'll try and maintain the process we've kept that has made us successful and try to repeat it. We've retained a core group of eight players or so who've won the title twice, and we understand what our process is and our plans are. Everyone's ready and hopeful, and the local players are strong."
It is a theme - the local core - Afridi is keen to return to. Qalandars do have a streak of continuity running through their squad which often tends to be indicative of a franchise in good health. Fakhar Zaman has been with Qalandars since the outset, and Haris Rauf, Zaman Khan and Afridi are staple members of the side, and have all played significant roles in their title triumphs over the last few years.
In a year like this, it's fairly handy to have a skipper who sincerely believes this. The PSL has been hit by overseas players' unavailability, partially down to the financial heft of the ILT20 (where Afridi signed a bumper three-year deal) and the SA20, which have squeezed the PSL into a tighter window and made competition for player access much fiercer. The overseas roster this year is a shadow of what it was when the PSL was at its zenith; Qalandars alone boast Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum, Chris Lynn and AB de Villiers among their former players. This year, Qalandars' biggest star Rashid Khan pulled out as he nurses his return from a back injury in a bid to be fit for the IPL in April.
Afridi, though, has little time for any insinuation the league might not be as globally appealing as it used to be. "No, no," he says dismissively before the question is even fully put. "I don't understand this criticism," he says. "People say big players not coming here affects the league. But look at our local players. When they go to an overseas league, they're the biggest names in those leagues. Whenever the boys have gone abroad for a league, their value was the highest. We have to respect and value the local players in our league, and if we do that, our league's prominence will continue to rise. Players from abroad may have their own reasons for not coming, but the local players have huge value and deserve respect."
Perhaps it goes back to Qalandars' local core, and the sharp shift in philosophy from those bleak, early seasons. In the early years, the side went for the flashiest overseas player available, facilitated by the first pick they always had by dint of finishing bottom the previous year. Gayle, Lynn, McCullum and de Villiers were largely unable to light up the side's fortunes. In recent years, it is the Pakistan players who have taken centre stage at the franchise, with crafty overseas picks such as David Wiese, Tim David and even Rashid subsumed into the collective instead of overshadowing it altogether.
Afridi concedes the Afghan legspinner is a colossal miss. "Rashid walks into any team. No doubt he's a class bowler and we'll miss him. But our team's bowling is very good. The struggles we faced in early seasons mainly came with the bat, and we didn't score enough runs in the middle order. In the last two years, our batting order's done very well. It's a team effort and the boys back each other, and give each other the confidence to perform well. The team has gelled together nicely."
His success with the franchise has also seen him gain a promotion in the national side. Late last year, when Babar Azam reluctantly quit as captain in all three formats, Afridi was chosen to replace him in T20Is. It was a role he says he hadn't even contemplated until former Pakistan captain Imran Khan advised him to take up the captaincy. Afridi has made little secret of his adulation for Imran. "It is very hard to say no to Imran bhai," he smiles, the mood lightening as he recalls that memory.
Any wholesomeness, as Afridi will know, can evaporate quickly when the carnival-like atmosphere of a T20 league is replaced by the intense, stifling scrutiny international cricket places on a captain. He took up the reins of a dressing room which was less than united just after a Test tour of Australia which Pakistan had lost 3-0, with Afridi himself getting significant criticism for sitting out of the final Test. He then lost his first series in charge, New Zealand sweeping the first four games in a routine 4-1 victory.
Afridi wants to warn against reading too much into that performance though, insisting there's no step up from franchise to international captaincy. "I don't think there's any difference," he says. "If anything, Pakistan cricket captaincy is slightly easier because the boys have played together, all through the domestic circuit together as well. We can express ourselves in our own language and understand our role. In franchise cricket, you have players from overseas, and you work with different coaches. That can get tricky, but in Pakistan cricket there's greater familiarity."
Afridi speaks with disarming candour about how little he knew about captaincy before taking on the role, but at the same time, believes there is more to it than granular details like tactics and match-ups. "When I wasn't captain, I didn't know a lot of things. Some so them are so basic I don't even want to tell you about them," he laughs.
"When you're a bowler you only focus on yourself and your bowling. When you're captain, the 11 who play and the five sitting on the bench are all your players. You have to treat them as individuals, talk to them all and keep a friendly atmosphere. You even have a responsibility to conduct yourself in a particular way with the coaching staff, because you're all pursuing the same goals. You have a short period of time and you have to be like a family during this time. The more united you are, the better the chance you give yourself to win.
"We don't put extra pressure on any player, and no player in our side is allowed to place additional pressure on any other player or try to intimidate them. Because everyone has the skills."
Afridi was keen to ensure he didn't overwork himself before the PSL started. While he was contracted to the ILT20, he played the first five games with the Desert Vipers before returning and taking "ten days completely off from cricket".
While visibly weary of the lingering questions around his pace, Afridi says bowling every ball at over 145kph is "not a way any bowler bowls" in T20 cricket.
"I know I can still bowl 140 or 145, but you have to do everything when the time is right. In T20 cricket, no bowler bowls 140-plus as their average ball. In T20 cricket, you only need to bowl three or four balls at express pace. There are a lot of slower balls, variations, and the like. I have never felt my pace has dipped. I know I can bowl 140 or 145. I'm still fit and young, just 23."
You don't have to be particularly worldly to know there's a lot more going on in Pakistan than just a T20 league. The country is currently in the grips of a severe economic crisis, aggravated by a bitter political atmosphere that culminated in a general election earlier this month marred by widespread allegations of rigging from around the world. There is no sign yet that either the economic pinch or the political deadlock will cease anytime soon.
"The way the country's situation is," Afridi says vaguely before breaking off the sentence altogether. He clearly feels passionately about the subject. So he tries again, trying to balance it with the responsibility he has as one of the biggest draws of the PSL. "The PSL and cricket is something that makes people happy. Elections just got over, so I'm hopeful the crowds turn up and support cricket."
Few would begrudge Pakistan getting the brief distraction it needs so badly at the moment. And over the years, Afridi at the PSL has been more than happy to oblige.

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000