He feels so unlike everybody else, alone
In spite of the fact that some people still think that they know him
But **** ’em, he knows the code
It’s not about the salary
It’s all about reality and making some noise
The noise associated with Afridi’s batting ever since he exploded on to the scene 13 years ago has been Boom Boom. Virender Sehwag destroys attacks with far greater consistency, and Albie Morkel can hit the ball further, but when it comes to reducing batsmanship to its most primal form, no one does it quite like Afridi. In doing so, he often brings out the Neanderthal in the fans too.
I recall a game at Kanpur in April 2005. Pakistan had come from two down to square the series, and with President Musharraf and Manmohan Singh to be part of the audience for the final game in Delhi, the match at Green Park had real significance. It was hardly a batting paradise either. The sluggish pitch and accurate bowling had stymied India’s top order, but with Rahul Dravid and Mohammad Kaif finding form, Pakistan needed to score at exactly five an over to win.
Enter Afridi and Salman Butt, and two quiet overs to start. Then carnage. Lakshmipathy Balaji clipped off the pads for a six and a four. Then a straighter ball met with a booming drive. Caught, but only by one of the groundstaff down at long-off. And to finish the over, a cut so withering it could have come from Gordon Greenidge’s bat.
With red lights flashing, Dravid turned to an old hand, Anil Kumble. It wasn’t an auspicious start. A full toss to Afridi is like wearing a red shirt during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Six over square leg. The next delivery was well outside off stump and pretty full. From a legspinner. Afridi though doesn’t do conventional. Smeared over midwicket for six. Change of plan from Kumble, round the wicket. Muscled over mid-off for four more. And then some nifty footwork the precursor to a mighty heave for six. Kumble would concede 54 in 10 overs, 22 of them in those six balls to Afridi.
He needed 20 balls for his half-century and by the time Harbhajan Singh sneaked one past him, he had made 102 from 46 balls. In the 15th over, Pakistan had stormed to 131. They won with eight overs to spare. All applause is usually frowned upon in the press box, but on that particular day, I was one of several that stood up and clapped when he reached his century.
It was an open-air enclosure, and in the stand adjacent to us, there was several lumpen elements who jeered each stroke and constantly chanted anti-Pakistan slogans. Judging by the bandanas and other paraphernalia that many of them wore, they owed allegiance to a Hindu nationalist party that isn’t fond of Pakistan or Muslims in general. Unknown to me, I had been spotted.
Later that afternoon, as I made my way out of the ground, two of them were still loitering. Both were drunk – some effort, since alcohol certainly isn’t allowed into the cheap seats at Indian grounds – and the mood was distinctly hostile. One of them approached me, as full of menace as Afridi had been earlier in the day, and hissed: “Sharam nahin aati [Don’t you feel any shame]?” The presence of a couple of cops nearby gave me the confidence to sweetly say: “No. Should I?” and saunter off. It could have been ugly though.
Those fans were an exception. By and large, supporters of all nationalities love to see an Afridi-like character in action. In Pakistan, he enjoys a status that far outstrips his modest record. And it’s been that way ever since the boy who was allegedly 16 clubbed a 37-ball hundred against Muttiah Muralitharan, Chaminda Vaas and friends at a Nairobi Gymkhana Ground that was way too small to contain his exuberant hitting.
“My brother-in-law was at the ground in Kenya that day,” says Sajid Sadiq, who runs the hugely popular Pakpassion website. “He told me: ‘We were all saying Shahid Who? when his name was announced, but left the stadium at the end of the game shouting ‘Afridi, Afridi’. ‘We certainly knew his name after that innings’.”
The adoration from the crowd has been a double-edged sword in some ways. In a television interview a few years ago, he admitted as much. “While in the dressing room, I try to remain calm and think about building my innings,” he said. “But when I go out there, it’s like hitting a wall of sound and I forget whatever we had discussed minutes earlier. I just try and smash every ball.”
There have been few batsmen who fill, and empty, seats in quite the same way. Rizwan Ehsan Ali, who writes for the Associated Press in Pakistan, remembers a game against South Africa two years ago. “It was at the Gaddafi Stadium and Pakistan had lost a few wickets early in the run chase. There was a huge crowd of around 28 or 30,000 at the stadium and to a man, woman and child, they were hoping that Afridi would play a matchwinning knock. However, as usual, he was caught while trying to clear the fence. Within minutes, the stadium was empty. Whether he scores 0 or 100, he is for sure a big crowd puller. These days, even if he nudges a ball for a single, he gets huge applause, as if he has completed a century.”
After 276 games though, Afridi has only four hundreds to his name, the last of them that whirlwind effort in Kanpur that dismayed the fundamentalist fringe near me. In recent seasons, he has been picked mainly for his bowling. Ostensibly a legspinner, he wreaks most devastation with a quicker delivery that has been timed at speeds in excess of 80 miles an hour. In fact, he started out as a fast bowler , a young man idolising Imran Khan, and he says that he switched to spin only because “people told me that I was chucking the ball”.
Though he last played a Test three years ago, Afridi can also boast of one of the great innings of our age. The Chennai Test of 1999 is destined to be remembered for Sachin Tendulkar’s epic, if ultimately futile 136, but it was Afridi that broke the game open for Pakistan. On a pitch where the run-rate was around three an over, he thumped 21 fours and three sixes on his way to 141 from 191 balls. It was only his second Test, and it hasn’t been forgotten. “It’s an innings that I remember vividly to this day,” he said in an interview to Pakpassion. India were at the receiving end of two other centuries [Lahore and Faisalabad] in 2006, and his constant baiting of Irfan Pathan and refusal to take a backward step had the crowds baying for more.
But it’s when he dons the dark green one-day outfit that Afridi becomes a Superman in spectators’ eyes. Opposing teams had presumably found some Kryptonite though, because his form in the build-up to the World Twenty20 in England was dismal. Instead of Boom Boom, it was Whimper Whimper, and you had to go back more than a year to find a half-century. When he promptly holed out for 0 during a warm-up game where India handed out an embarrassing nine-wicket drubbing, it seemed that Afridi was playing his way out of the team.
But the man who says he would have joined the army but for his cricketing talent refused to go quietly. Younis Khan, a fellow Pathan, kept faith, and Afridi’s miserly bowling was crucial as the Netherlands, surprise conquerers of England, were overwhelmed in a game that Pakistan simply had to win to progress. He then came good with both bat and ball against New Zealand and Ireland as a semi-final place was clinched.
I was at Trent Bridge when Pakistan took on South Africa, and the atmosphere was such that it could easily have been a home game. First, he batted with unusual restraint while making 51 from 34 balls. There were no sixes, just a steely-eyed stare each time the bowlers got too close. Then, with the ball, he took 2 for 16, ripping deliveries through the defences of Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers, two of the better players of spin in the side. Pakistan won by seven runs, and Afridi had his date with destiny at Lord’s. Outside the ground, fans celebrated with a cacophony of car horns, chants of “Pakistan zindabad” and “Afridi, Afridi”.
A decade earlier, he had played a 50-over World Cup final, part of a Pakistan side defeated in Twenty20 time by Steve Waugh’s rampant Australians. Given a shot at redemption, he grabbed it with the ferocity with which he greets you – “I thought my hand was going to fall off after I shook hands with Afridi,” said Ian Chappell once.
First, the Sri Lankans were kept to 138, with Afridi taking 1 for 20, and then he came out and batted in a fashion that made you wonder if an imposter was at the crease. His unbeaten 54 contained just two fours and two sixes, and was as mature and calculated an innings as you could hope to see. After more than a decade, the Boy Wonder of Nairobi had finally grown up.
*This article was first published in SA Cricket magazine.