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Boom Boom Afridi, the unmatched destroyer of boredom

Wisden India logo Wisden India 10-05-2016
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“Since we are playing only four Twenty20 matches this year we want to give new players a chance, and that will also allow Afridi to rest and perform in domestic matches” – Inzamam-ul-Haq on May 2, at the time of announcing the attendees for the boot camp in the lead-up to next month’s tour of England.

Shahid Afridi officially turned 36 about two months ago. As for his actual age, it’s anybody’s guess. The man’s vintage has for long been a cause of great mirth. Come to think of it, it was remarked upon even on his second day on the job, when he scored a 37-ball century against Sri Lanka in Nairobi back in October 1996. He was 16 then. No one believed it.

Anyway, fooling around about Afridi’s age is fairly pointless at this stage of his career. He is as old as he is. If he isn’t 36 and is, say, 42, he is a remarkably fit 42, still capable of hitting the ball big and long and still rushing through his overs in under two minutes. That’s what he has done for 20 years now, a bigger batsman in the early years and then more of a bowler-batsman in recent years.

But of late, even that 36 seems rather past it.

First came the man’s resignation from captaincy of the Pakistan Twenty20 International team, the only national team he has been a part of since the 2015 50-over World Cup. Once Pakistan ended that woeful World T20 campaign in India this March, he stepped down – he might well have been asked to, considering his team’s not-too-glorious run – with the caveat that he wouldn’t stop playing the format.

That worked out okay, actually. Looking at the team’s performances at the Asia Cup and the World T20, Afridi’s cameos down the order and his usually effective wrist-spinners were enough for the former captain to still have a place in the side.

But, almost immediately after that, came a slew of other changes in Pakistan cricket, none of which had anything to do with Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi. Waqar Younis left the back room; Sarfraz Ahmed, still only 28, was handed the reins of the T20I side; and then Inzamam took charge as the chief selector. His first big call was to leave Afridi, Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad out of the camp. With Akmal and Shehzad, indiscipline has played a part. With Afridi, it could only be performance – he is not good enough for Pakistan any more.

Soon after the World T20, Afridi had been asked to attend a Pakistan Cricket Board committee set up to investigate the poor run of results. He chose not to go, citing his daughter’s poor health as the reason and, apparently, speaking to the panel over the phone instead. It couldn’t have helped with the brownie points.

On May 8 then, Sunday that is, came the next Afridi headline – he had bunked a fitness test the PCB had asked him to attend. This was accompanied by reports of Abdul Qadir, who always has a point of view about the goings-on in his country’s cricket, reportedly saying, “I don’t think cricket is any longer the forte of Afridi and he should say goodbye.”

That’s exactly what Afridi seems to have done by missing the fitness test. He has explained that he has a knee niggle but also that he wanted to be fit for his upcoming stint with Hampshire. The original limited-overs specialist has thus hinted at becoming a T20 freelancer.

What option does he have anyway? The administration’s message is clear: The team wants to move forward in the limited-overs format on the shoulders of Azhar Ali and Sarfraz, with Mickey Arthur as coach. And in that forward march, there is no place for Afridi.

Whether Afridi goes on to have a good freelance career or not, this is all very sad-making.

He has been so incredible and so infuriating, so exhilarating and so enervating, so awesome and so awful – all, typically, within a span of five minutes, and over 20 years – that one is bound to miss him.

If you ignore the numbers (which, by the way, are more than very good) and only think back to his best moments, you have to wish he was a bit more sane, especially when it came to his batting. I also still can’t picture him as a captain in the modern era, when strategising and laptops are de rigueur; I imagine he would be a Kapilesque ‘Dil laga ke khelo, boys’ kind of captain. With ball, because of the limitations a bowler has, he wasn’t as tempestuous, but with the bat, oh my! The story might be going in one direction, but no one ever told Afridi that. Or he didn’t bother to listen. As long as he was out there, he would futterwacken … vigorously.

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On the one hand, recasting If, Afridi would be the one losing his head when all about him were not … on the other, think about it: 20 years in that cricket system where, sometimes, no one knows what’s going to happen the next day, or next hour, he stayed the course.

Afridi seems to have finally run out of credits now, for Pakistan at least.

When we look back, there will be much to remember Afridi by. Simply in terms of numbers, he scored upwards of 8000 ODI runs and picked up close to 400 ODI wickets; he had a batting average of 36.51 in Tests as well as five centuries; the record for most Twenty20 International wickets in the world – 97 – at the time of what might well be his retirement … and that it was Afridi, not anyone else, who did it all with bat and ball as Pakistan won the 2009 World T20 title. Those frenetic centuries – that 102 against India in the Kanpur ODI of 2005 was something else, wasn’t it?

Yet, it’s so easy to forget all that and only remember his mad swings of the bat. A compulsive hitter, that’s what he was; a compulsive slogger. Irresponsible. Exasperating. Predictably unpredictable. He has been all that, but he has also been so much more. The man who drove Pakistan’s hopes, single-handedly at times, and disappointed often in a blaze of swishing blade and bustling walk.

If he never turns out in the green shirt again, Afridi will be missed – there have been better cricketers, greater achievers, but there has only ever been one Shahid Afridi. Unique. Quite the Mad Hatter. Boom Boom!

Slideshow: Crazy cricket records

Sri Lankan cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan bats during the third day of the first test cricket match against India in Galle, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, July 20, 2010. Crazy cricket records

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