For a while now, I have reserved my comments about Shahid Afridi. I observed, experienced and witnessed the incoming onslaught from all factions of the society. There were those who simply despised him, others gauged his performance as unsatisfactory while a vigorous minority looked to defend the player and captain he had become.
But I was silent. All this time, I tried to keep my nerve, and tolerated all types of condescending remarks going around, the memes, the gifs, the taunting statuses and tweets, I was silent. But now, I have decided to speak up. Enough is enough.
Cricket is indeed a sport that glorifies captains and pins the teams’ responsibility on them. The team strategy, batting lineups, assessment of the pitches and ball to ball decisions are to be taken by that one man primarily. The coach gives tips here and there, but it is fundamentally the task of the captain to foresee circumstances and cater to them accordingly.
So let us look at history and how it all began..
Shahid Afridi started off as bowler, a leg spinner to be specific. The first match he ever played was on the 2nd of October, 1996, where he did not even bat. His bowling figures were 0-32 but he faced ZERO balls as a batsman. However, in an accidental twist of fate, in succeeding matches, he performed as a batsman and became known as Boom Boom, or in cricket terms, an all-rounder.
This is where we went wrong. We have done this far too many times. One good knock and the bowler towers towards the all-rounder segment. To be an all-rounder, you have to master all three crafts, batting, bowling and fielding. While there was no doubt about the latter two, the former did raise several question marks. He was explosive, furious and just the right amount of aggressive, a team needs at the commencement of the innings but he was still not a batsman.
And then it started deteriorating, he was facing lesser balls, and scoring occasionally. Every now and then, statements would come out where he tried to remind his countrymen that he was more a bowler than he would ever be a batsman, and was thus, focusing on improving his bowling. But to no avail, despite his impeccable records as a bowler, the people wanted sixes and fours shooting off of his bat. And in his attempts to try to live up to his name, he failed, time and time again. Whatever plan was thwarted at him, when he came up to bat, he was unpredictable. Sometimes he would work, the flurry of boundaries just would not stop but most times, he failed, going out on ducks or low scores, yet he kept trying.
When he tried to block balls, he was cheered on for boundaries, and when he tried to hit those boundaries, he was mocked for poor batting technique. He tolerated it all but there were emotional outbursts every now and then. And how could he not? After all, he was being ostracized for a talent he did not possess. He was never an Inzamam ul Haq or Saeed Anwar kind of a batsman, he was always Shahid Afridi, unorthodox and far too unique for his time.
In the 2009 T20 World Cup, Afridi played a huge role in the semifinal and final to help Pakistan clinch the Champions title. The captain Younis Khan, resigned and the post automatically shifted to Afridi. He was the star of the tournament but more importantly, he was the superstar of the industry. He was glamor and gold, but he was still unpredictable.
Efforts were done to carve him out as the perfect captain but what we forgot was, he was never the type you could mold. He did his own things and rarely took advice. He was a man of the moment and to entrust the team’s responsibility was a little naïve on the authorities’ part. Yet, he was successful in the beginning. He placed the team right, he united them on the surface and it was a pretty picture to view until things went downhill.
After much insistence on part of the cricket board, he was brought out of Test retirement and given the hefty task of leading a format, he had barely played. He refused but eventually gave in, which I believe was his mistake to begin with. When he lost the first match against England, he retired and the captaincy landed onto the next promising star, Salman Butt. But he tarnished the spirit of the game. When three leading players were caught for spot fixing, the team morale went down, they disintegrated and lost the will to play.
But then Afridi swooped in. He instilled unity, and brought forth an ignition of hope. In those dark times, when a large faction of our society had lost heart in the sport of cricket, he helped us realise there was still reason to have faith. Even though, we were still not winning championships, he gave up his heart and did his utmost to bring back the team from the abyss of misery and frustration they had landed in. He guided them, trusted them but most importantly, believed in them, at a time, very few did.
In 2011, after losing the World Cup semifinal to India, Afridi came home, distraught over the interference by the coach and team management in captaincy related issues. He was sacked by the then PCB chairman Ejaz Butt, and got into a fierce tussle, following which he announced retirement. There was public outcry as professionals and common men, rallied in Afridi’s favor and demanded that he be returned to his true place.
There were rumors claiming Afridi was after captaincy and was unwilling to play under someone, but they were proven false as he returned to play under the very calm and dignified Misbah ul Haq. He offered advices, and inspite of all the claims regarding their rivalry, the two could be seen growing closer by the day.
When Afridi hit a bad patch, Misbah was generous in his words, stating that Afridi’s presence alone was enough to boost the confidence of the team. And he was right, youngsters vied to be like him, to climb up to his stature but we forgot to tell them once again, that it should have been the bowlers and the fielders to whom he should have spewed inspiration, not the batsmen. He was a bowler afterall, and he was shining in that, his batting, on the other hand was still the same, unpredictable but emanating hope in every match.
In 2014, after Mohammad Hafeez stepped down as T20 captain following the loss in the T20 World Cup, Afridi was handed back the captaincy. He neither demanded it nor asked for it, yet he was asked to fill in as captain. So he took the responsibility and began trying once again. He was still on point in the scale of aggression. He would make his bowlers attack and use slips early on, to attain wickets but it was the batting lineup that kept on failing. Several openers were tried and they just could not hold the end down while scoring simultaneously. But Pakistan was rising, not in terms of ranking, but with regards to the will and spirit they had lost following the spot fixing debacle. It felt to many, that things had finally blown over and the rejuvenation process was on.
On 20th March 2015, under the captaincy of Misbah ul Haq, Afridi played his last ODI against Australia in the quarter final of the World Cup. He bowled 0-30 with the highest economy rate at 7.50 and scored 23 with his bat from 15 balls, with three fours and a six, the highest strike rate for that match (153.3). He was hailed and paid accolade by cricket spectators worldwide. And although he had exited two formats of the game, people still waited anxiously for him in the T20I.
When Afridi is remembered, he is done so because of his amazing sixes, the longest in cricket history, or for his second fastest century off 37 balls, or he is done so on the basis of that amazing six against India in the Asia Cup that reminded spectators of Miandad’s six in Sharjah. He is remembered for the most number of sixes, and the highest rate of ducks or the huge strike rates he had to offer. He is remembered for the fastest half centuries or the two fifties he scored off very few balls in the semis and final of the 2009 T20 World Cup.
But what we forget is, that the bowler who debuted in 1996, bowled the best googlies which caught top quality batsmen off guard, we forget the many bowls batsmen misread and hit off to be caught out at mid-on or mid-off, or even slip or gully. We forget the amazing catch he took in Pakistan VS New Zealand match in the 2009 World Cup that helped Pakistan into the semis. Or the amount of amazing dives or leaps he made to stop boundaries etc. We forget the 300+ wickets in ODIs and the massive number in T20s. We forget the highest number of man of the match awards he has received, a lot of them being for his bowling. We also forget the five wicket hauls that very few players achieve more than once. We forget that he was one of the best fielders inside the circle. We forget it all.
But what we do remember is his failure at batting.
To me, Shahid Afridi was more than a cricketer. He was hope. He was charm. He was charisma. He was the shining light at the end of a dark tunnel, an illuminator in horrifying times. He was the phoenix which rose from its own ashes and the tiger who refused to back down. He was a fighter whose sword was not as strong as his opponent, but his heart and will strongest of all. He was Shahid Afridi.
In every match that he played, there was belief until the moment he got out that our team could win. No man has probably received the number of prayers forwarded towards him than Afridi and no man could single handedly lead the spectators out of the match before it even ended. Afridi was a man who fought the odds of criticism and statistics, he was a man who surveyed the field vehemently yet still managed to get caught in the very spot he was trying to avoid. He was a man whose aggression terrorized the opposing team, and who’s sincerity made him a superstar.
When I think of Afridi, I think of strength, of belief and of strong will and persistence. He embodied many qualities that over the years, people forgot to cherish. He was dedicated. He was hard working. He was honest. He was the wind, the sun, the moon, the fire, every figure that was required of him, but he was never a batsman and that is what we forgot on the way. Whatever he was able to muster out of his batting, was more so a favor upon us, a repercussion of the burden he felt due to our expectations. But again, he was a bowler and a fielder whom we were forcing to become a batsman.
So every time, you think of Afridi, think of him as the man who felt he was never enough for his nation, as the man who in his attempt trying to please his countrymen, fell solid hard on the ground. Think of him as the man with the purest of intentions, the biggest of hearts and the man who gave his everything. He may not have been a spectacular captain or a brilliant batsman to many, but he was still a legend. He was a tale of conviction and hard work, and a story tens of thousands around the world will tell their children. He was everything but a batsman yet the only thing we expected of him was just that. So let’s remember him, not as a failing batsman or a traumatizing captain, but as a warrior who believed and attempted.