The 2018-19 Centurion Test
had Pakistan succumbing to a defeat in less than two and a half days but is broadly remembered - in Pakistan anyway - as the game that saw their most valuable asset come of age in the longest format. Watching Babar Azam's assault on Dale Steyn
as batters around him fell helter-skelter to a lesser-known Duanne Olivier
, there was a general consensus that Pakistan cricket was entering the age of Babar Azam. With 1271 runs at an average of 52.95 since then, that assessment has stood the test of time.
But in elevating that innings to the legendary, almost mythical status it has come to assume in the Pakistan captain's story arc, another equally pivotal moment slipped by. It's difficult to imagine now with Shaheen Shah Afridi
's status so secure in the top tier of world fast bowling, but the then 18-year-old was playing just his second Test match. He had got an early taste of the impossibly low totals Pakistan batters too often set up for their bowlers to work with but, in just two balls, he turned the match situation around.
Using his height and the exceptionally spicy tracks South Africa had laid out for Pakistan, Afridi banged one into the surface, working the channel outside off stump he had patiently probed all innings. Dean Elgar hung his bat out, and with the ball shaping away, got an edge that went straight to first slip. South African captain Faf du Plessis was targeted with a bouncer straightaway, the ball flying off the handle and looping up to gully. Afridi, like Babar, had arrived, seemingly fully formed, on the Test stage.
That 18-year-old boy is still only 21 years old, but what transpired at SuperSport Park wasn't the only foreshadowing for what he achieved at Sabina Park in the recently concluded Test series against West Indies
. Those 18 wickets this series - nearly a quarter of his career total - stem from constant improvement over these three years on an already high bar, making him perhaps the most exciting prospect in Pakistani fast bowling in a generation. There was the false dawn of Mohammad Amir
and the breathless comparisons with Wasim Akram he invoked, but the incremental progression of Afridi feels more sustainable.
He retains the ability to bang the ball in short and watch batters dance as they take evasive action; Jermaine Blackwood's first-innings dismissal in the second Test
was an example of Afridi at his exhilaratingly raw and unrestrained best. But you don't get to open the bowling for Pakistan if you don't pitch it up and move the ball, and Afridi's control over that fuller length is formidable.
This is significant because bowlers of Afridi's height don't necessarily match Afridi's pace. In the opposition ranks, Jason Holder certainly isn't as quick, and adjusting for that high release point combined with Afridi's extra pace likely makes the fuller balls much harder to spot. Add in the new-ball swing, and it's perhaps not difficult to see why West Indies' top order struggled as much as it did over the two Tests. And it isn't just West Indies' stuttering top order either; since his fifth Test, Afridi has never failed to take the wicket of at least one opposition opening batter.
Afridi plays nearly all international cricket for Pakistan; the rare occasions he sits out have primarily to do with workload management. As far as Test cricket goes, he's a dead certainty to open the bowling regardless of opposition, irrespective of location. Over the past three years, there are just two obvious all-format candidates for Pakistan; the other is Babar. One reason he keeps company with a contemporary legend is he can mix with the best when it comes to historical legends, too.
Comparisons with Akram didn't age especially well for Amir, but when Afridi's nascent career is pitted against Akram's early years, Afridi comes out looking rosy. Afridi has 76 Test wickets to his name; Akram at this stage had 63 in 29 more overs
. In 12 of 31 innings, Afridi has accounted for at least four opposition batters - that number stood at seven for Akram at the same stage. No Pakistani left-arm quick has been as prolific at this career stage, and the only pacers significantly further out in front are his bowling coach Waqar Younis (93) and Mohammad Asif (94).
And all that without so much as a nod to his already glittering limited-overs career: his 53 ODI wickets at 24.62, his constant presence near the top of the wicket charts at the domestic National T20 Cup and the PSL, his four wickets in four balls for Hampshire
at the Rose Bowl, five wickets for four runs in just his third PSL match... Oh, and back to the red ball, his 8 for 39 in the second innings of his debut first-class game
, still a record for a Pakistani.
Afridi hasn't burst onto the scene so much as taken off after taxiing at high speed, the further inexorable progress and rise a natural outcome of the momentum his previous body of work has set him up for. There will still be turbulence along the way; the biggest challenge remains workload management and how his body manages to stave off side strains and lower-back niggles. Afridi might be bucking the recent trend of young Pakistani fast bowlers failing to live up to their potential, but Pakistan too will need to break out of a culture of insouciance when it comes to physical health of its quicks. The future of Pakistan fast bowling might look safe in the hands of this smiling, baby-faced two-metre prodigy as long as he, in turn, is safe in the hands of those who manage him.