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MANISH DUBEY | 24 FEBRUARY, 2017

The Subversive Charm of Shahid Afridi


NEW DELHI: Rahul Dravid soaked the cricket grammar book, Brian Lara rendered it to music, Sachin Tendulkar asked pertinent questions of it, Adam Gilchrist and Virendra Sehwag brashly went about editing it. And the finally (?) retired Shahid Afridi? Well, he just decided to take a crayon to it and have some fun. Grades be damned. The impudence was charming and subversive enough to be tolerated for twenty years.

It is pointless then getting into conventional performance yardsticks when talking of Afridi. For every fan citing career aggregates, boundary count, and batting strike rate, there will be a skeptic wondering what the hype is about. Aren’t both his batting and bowling averages in the shorter formats of the game (the formats he is said to have distinguished himself in) in same ball park as several less celebrated players, including compatriot Shoaib Malik?

To the unquantifiable must we turn to understand the essence of Afridi’s game - and ask ourselves what set him apart from contemporaries who hit as aggressively (Gilchrist), refused as mulishly to defer to technique (Sehwag), and generated as much buzz when handed the ball (Shane Warne) or stepping in to bat (Chris Gayle).

Like them all, Afridi could send our spirits soaring. Unlike them all, he was likely to fail more often than succeed. And it is the latter that set him apart. Fallibility has been as much part of the Afridi package as world-beating, high-octane entertainment.

Hence, the reputation as both a match winner and an irresponsible cricketer - and the intense love-hate relationship with followers of Pakistan cricket. Celebrated for demonstrating Pakistani muscle and boosting national pride (in an era of socio-political turbulence and international censure) on the one hand, reviled for not living up to potential and repeatedly allowing his hot headedness to overtake team interests on the other.

Perhaps a truer appreciation of Afridi’s game needs neutral viewers. Take a pause and recall the times you saw him on the cricket field. Here’s what I remembered and sensed when trying that.

A shoot out like atmosphere. Every ball. No matter what the form book said, what the match situation was, or how commanding or vulnerable he looked at the crease on a given day, bowlers were sniffing a chance and dreading a boundary every time they rolled their arm over. And when Afridi held the ball, batsmen braced themselves as much for a long hop as spiteful bounce and turn.

The essential thrill of competitive sport lies in unpredictability. It is why evenly matched contests are closely followed, why underdogs are cheered, and why upsets are remembered. It is why Afridi endeared himself to cricket followers across the world. With him, whether you were in the Pakistani camp or not, you were hopeful and fearful at once, a loo break from a course-reversing (non-) performance, at the cusp of exhilaration or exasperation, and always, always, on the toes.

The opposition was on them toes too. They could study Afridi videos and strategize all night and think the right lines, lengths and field placements had been discovered till he decided they weren’t. Not because there were no chinks in the Afridi armor - there were several - but because the chinks kept changing places, weren’t to be found where expected. Which meant no ambush went as planned – and opponents found themselves toyed with, made a fool of. Unless, of course, he chose to play foolishly himself!

Much of Afridi’s unpredictability arose from a disdain for conventional cricket grammar. Not for him the accent on building an innings, reining in instincts as per the situation’s demands, or over-plotting against the opposition. The disdain, one suspects, wasn’t wilful; it was just how he liked to play. All he wanted was to hit long and hard when batting and shatter the stumps when bowling. Like the first people who played cricket did. Like every kid who takes up the game does. Till coaches start doing their thing.

With the rhythms of life and sport getting pacier, coaching schools proliferating and the demands and lures of T20 leagues, we are already seeing a new type of cricketer: fitter, invested in team strategy and adding tricks to their repertoire, schooled to read match situations and opponent’s plans, raised to ply their trade with controlled aggression. They play with abandon but optimize risk; they play with flourish but with an eye on outcome. No doubt, they will continue to provide entertainment (with help from shortening boundaries and bowlers with tied hands) in the times ahead but for some primal edge-of-the-seat, heart-in-the-mouth stuff, we will still miss Afridi.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer with interest in politics, cinema and cricket).

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