The feet hopped away, the head fell over, the arms swung like they were the outcome of a detonation, the ball did what it had to, but even before it thought of doing so, the mind had made itself up. The ball was being sent beyond the realms of reclamation. How and where it would go was not to be worried about — a thoroughly gruff rendition of the saying, “One must focus on one’s efforts alone and leave the outcomes to be decided by the maker”.
The colour of the jersey didn’t matter, the situation of the game was irrelevant, what rode on its result was a thing that the rest could evaluate. When at the crease, batting was no more grace or beauty, it transformed into the monstrous mauling that willow did to leather. Shahid Afridi shall be remembered for being the Frankenstein — whose fire from hell began a cult of batting that most closely resembled mindless hitting more than anything else and quite often ended up burning his and his teams’ fortunes.
Though, at his best, Afridi was invincible. He could rip bowlers to shreds with his whirlwind strokeplay and leave the field having picked a fifer with his leg breaks. Or, walk the park and appear to be the greatest all rounder in the modern game. He would be the graceful majesty at press conferences, being blunt but honest in his assessments. He extolled his men to bring their best into play and for once could seal the team effectively to be undisturbed by the perennial fracas that his cricket board hosted.
Rarely, when he chose to play like he cared about the result, no other Pakistani batsman had the sort of grip on the game that Shahid Afridi had. His reputation won him half the battle and the absolute brutality of his hitting did what remained. When he gave the ball a good smack, it had implications. It was more than just runs. It mauled bowlers’ and their captains’ psyche.
But when would Shahid Afridi click? Did even he know?
Unpredictability is the dish that Asian teams bring to the game’s potluck and who could prepare it better than the Pakistanis? While the rest of the cricketing world pushes the level of professionalism to newer heights, Pakistan’s cricket offers enormous space for its cricketers to be themselves, even if it came at the cost of the team’s success. Nowhere else are players allowed to be so callous on and off the field. While most of them are supremely talented, it has to be said that they are unwilling to carry the burden of responsibility.
When he blasted his way to the fastest limited overs hundred as a teenager, Afridi demonstrated his abilities to the world. For that to still be counted as his finest personal achievement as a batsman after two decades in the international circuit is a testimony to his shortcomings. It shows his captains in poor light and questions the role of his coaches. He began by opening the batting in tests and performed reasonably — his inconsistency could be pardoned, attributing it to the hangover of teenage. For a youngster to have been given the privilege of opening the batting with the magnificent Saeed Anwar, it was essential that he was extraordinary, and yes Shahid Afridi was. But he needed mentors who could act like doting father figures to his prodigious talent and unfortunately both Imran Khan and Javed Miandad were long gone by then. The seniors that remained, were busy pursuing their own goals. Thus, it must be said that he remained unguided in the most vulnerable phase of his career.
What gave him happiness? Was it the deafening thwack when bat sent ball over the boundary? Was it in the flipper that he bowled? Did wickets do it? Did he love batting? What was his role in the team? Perhaps he never figured out and it showed in how his career shaped up. As shocking as it may sound when read in a line — an opening batsman decided somewhere in the course of his career that he was actually born to bowl and batting was ancillary! In all the chaos, he performed exceedingly as a bowling all-rounder and that sums up his potential and what he could have been if his mind had been handled well.
How could one explain a batsman attempting six after six despite there being no reason to do so? How could one pardon ungainly, naive slogs when he had the ability to play better and smarter? How could somebody shirk away from responsibility and still be overwhelmingly popular with the audiences? Did this popularity act as an endorsement of Afridi’s recklessness and did this meet the supply for demand criterion? Whatever it did, it ensured that he never believed he had the time to play long innings — those of substance and character — while he himself had both in no small measure.
Charisma is addictive, it breeds popularity and results in the evolution of cults. One will see the Shahid Afridi influence in a lot of young Pakistani batsmen, whereas they are better off being influenced by more sober figures. Batting is a medium and shot making must have a purpose. The purpose has to be fulfilled through the medium to achieve a higher goal. Otherwise, the winner of a cricket match could be decided by which side hits the longest six. But we are fortunate that the game is greater than such blunt aspirations and offers to its exponents much more to explore and achieve. Only when they realise this, will their game improve and this realisation begins when they choose the right idol. To sum it up, Shahid Afridi was a special player and there is no point in attempting to emulate him.
Of all his announcements of retirement, the latest feels most real and likely, for finally both age and relevance don’t favour him anymore. It has been a long journey until this point and both he and his cricket board can thank each other for how it has shaped up. For, there will rarely be such a player and nowhere such administration. But they gave us the highs and hangovers of crudely mixed drinks.
Perhaps it is a thing with people from the mountains and especially those near the Durand Line. They cannot be not gifted with athletic ability and sinewy bodies and neither can they be insipid and circumspect. Hence we saw the Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi we saw. A player who had it in him to be amongst the greats and oddly ended up being one whose whole was lesser than the sum of his parts.
He was the Achilles whose heel was in his mind.