Slasher who finally spun his true magic
It was in October 1996 that Shahid Afridi burst on the scene with a blazing hundred in his first innings in One-day Internationals, against Sri Lanka at Nairobi. Afridi had made his debut two days earlier against Kenya but did not get to bat as he was penciled in at no. 9, his team triumphing by four wickets. That hundred, batting at no.3, came in all of 37 balls, fastest at this level till Kiwi Corey Anderson pipped it by a delivery on the first day of 2014.
Soon drafted in to open the innings, it was reckoned that he would invariably provide blistering starts to his team. Though he blasted two of the five quickest, and three of the ten quickest, tons in One-dayers, and all his 6 hundreds arrived in well under 100 balls, he was too reckless and indiscreet to be a regular opener. Scintillating hitter though he is, he could not hold his place as a regular batsman alone, as his average of 23.40 suggests. He obviously has another skill, that of a quickish leg-spinner, but the powers-that-be were too slow to realize that his real utility was as a bowling allrounder who could change the game with both bat and ball. For that he needed to be utilised as a frontline bowler and a lower middle-order batsman.
Through three World Cup tournaments Afridi was barely noticed. A highest score of 37 in his 18 World Cup innings is hardly worthy of an international batsman. At the helm in 2011, he took the ball with a vengeance and emerged as the highest wicket-taker along with Zaheer Khan, but at a much better average, economy rate as well as strike-rate. Finally, Afridi came into his own in the World Cup.
He was up and down the order in the early English summer of 1999, in and out of the side, sometimes bowling, at other times not. His only performance of note was a typically swashbuckling 37 in 29 balls with 2 sixes and a four off the Zimbabweans, in the Super-sixes, batting at no. 7. Pakistan were runners-up to Australia.
It was much the same story in 2003 as the team was bundled out after the first stage. There was one good bowling stint against England. In his first ovcr he castled Alec Stewart, and later had Craig White caught by Younis Khan. Afridi bagged two for 36 in his 8 overs, but England pulled away and registered a huge win.
The 2007 World Cup was a sad one for Pakistan in more ways than one. In the solitary match that he played, Afridi smashed the Zimbabwean bowlers for 16 in 10 balls with a six and a four in a rollicking partnership of 33 in 3 overs with centurion Imran Nazir. As rain intervened in the Zimbabwe innings, Afridi bowled the big-hitting Elton Chigumbura, and rattled the stumps again twice in his next over. He finished with three for 20 in his 4 overs in a big win. But an upset earlier by Ireland was enough to knock Pakistan out of the tournament.
The flamboyant Afridi was in his elements with the ball in 2011. He revelled in his role as captain and confined himself to the lower middle-order. After Pakistan had piled up 317 for seven, Afridi flummoxed the Kenyan batsmen with his wily bowling. Veteran Steve Tikolo stepped out but was beaten in the flight and was bowled. Afridi then trapped Tanmay Mishra leg-before with a googly as Kenya really began to slide now. In his next over, Afridi slipped in a flipper to skipper Jimmy Kamande who was rapped on the pad plumb in front of middle-stump. Another googly, and another lbw, the experienced Thomas Odoyo sent packing for a duck in the subsequent over. Amidst all the ruin, Collins Obuya was playing a fighting, aggressive innings, having struck 3 fours and 3 sixes. With not much hope left, he lofted Afridi in the following over but holed out at long-on. At the end of this 8th over, Afridi had figures of five for 16, having delivered 3 maidens. This was the best analysis by a captain, and for Pakistan, in the World Cup. His team won by 205 runs.
There was a vital fixture against Sri Lanka next. In characteristic fashion Afridi clouted 16 off 12 balls with 3 boundaries to boost the run-rate. With Sri Lanka sailing along at 88 for one in the 18th over, Afridi’s third delivery went straight and fizzed through outside the off-stump. The in-form Tillakaratne Dilshan played on to the stumps trying to cut it. It was a crucial breakthrough. Afridi then beat Thilan Samaraweera on the forward stroke, and stumped by Kamran Akmal. Bowling his second spell, Afridi had Kumar Sangakkara caught for 49, as the captain stepped out, ending an ominous partnership with Chamara Silva. This was Afridi’s 300th wicket in One-day Internationals, and a prized scalp in a significant match. Angelo Matthews too came down the wicket to Afridi and holed out in similar fashion, as the wily bowler shortened the length of the delivery. Afridi finished his quota of 10 overs with a haul of four for 34. Sri Lanka were now 211 for six in 44 overs, requiring another 67. Nuwan Kulasekara made a spirited effort, striking 24 off 14 deliveries with 2 fours and a six, but Sri Lanka fell short by 11 runs. Deservedly, Afridi was man of this pulsating match.
Minnows Canada surprised Pakistan by skittling them for 184 in 43 overs as the ball swung around under a cloudy Colombo sky. Afridi tonked a quickfire 20 off 17 balls, and the last four wickets crashed for 3 runs. Canada lost wickets steadily. Afridi brought himself on first-change in the 11th over. The Canadian batsmen were all at sea against him, and sure enough their captain Ashish Bagai was deemed leg-before-wicket by the review system to a ball that went on straight. The sixth delivery of Afridi’s new spell was a flighted googly, which Rizwan Cheema tried to cart on the on-side and was castled off-stump. In his next over Jimmy Hansra, who had been battling valiantly, was beaten by a flipper that took his off-stump. The next delivery was a quick one that surprised and bowled Harvir Baidwan. Afridi was denied a hat-trick but in his subsequent over Tyson Gordon threw his bat at a googly, only to be taken in the outfield. Afridi returned with a haul of five for 23 in his 10 overs, wresting his second-successive man-of-the-match award, and bagging four or more wickets in three consecutive matches. The Pakistani skipper was on a high.
There was a setback at the hands of New Zealand as Ross Taylor scored a brilliant century on his birthday. Afridi took just one wicket, conceding 55 runs. Coming in at 45 for five in the 15th over, Afridi played another breezy little innings of 17 in 9 balls with 2 fours and a six. Pakistan slumped to a 110-run defeat. Zimbabwe were beaten easily in a rain-shortened game, with Afridi again securing a sole wicket, having given away 33 runs. Pakistan halted the golden unbeaten run of the Australians in the World Cup going back to 1999. They bowled out the thrice-reigning champions for 176 in 46.4 overs, with Afridi once more taking one wicket, conceding 34 runs this time.
Afridi was in his elements in the annihilation of the West Indies by 10 wickets in the quarter-final. Ramnaresh Sarwan had been trying to resurrect the innings along with old mate Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, and he slashed at one from Afridi outside off, only to be caught at point. Afridi made a shambles of the West Indies innings in his next over. Kieron Pollard attempted to cut a delivery angling in and inside-edged it into the gloves of Kamran Akmal. His subsequent delivery was quick and trapped Devon Thomas leg-before. He finally knocked back Ravi Rampaul’s leg-stump to bowl out the West Indies for 112 in 43.3 overs. This time Afridi walked back with four wickets for 30 in 9.3 overs. The Pakistani openers knocked up the runs in less than 21 overs.
This set up the most electrifying match of the tournament, a semifinal opposite India at Mohali. It was not a battle for the faint hearted. After a belligerent Sehwag, it was a resilient, if lucky, Tendulkar who held centre-stage. Pakistan did not help matters by committing several blunders in the field. Finally, Afridi himself held a catch offered by Tendulkar after the maestro had scored 85. Afridi, though, was wicketless, having expended 45 runs. India’s total of 260 on a wicket of variable bounce in a high-pressure match was a bit too much. India ran away winners by 29 runs, Pakistan still unable to beat them in five encounters in the World Cup.
(From the Hall of Fame section of Indra Vikram Singh’s new book ‘Indian Spring’. The author can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Available shortly in leading bookshops, and online on several websites.