No anticipation like the Afridi anticipation

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Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on a cricketer like none other

Among the several unknowables in the world of Shahid Afridi is one rock-solid certainty. Everyone knows when he played his first match. And everyone in Pakistan who is over 30 probably knows where they were, and what they were doing, when Afridi played his second match.

October 2, 1996 may be a generation away but Cecil Pervez, who was in high school back in Pakistan then, remembers the gravity of the occasion.  “I don’t know if that game was televised in Pakistan but I didn’t watch it live. But the moment he hit that century the whole country knew. Half of them may have not even watched the innings but everybody knew what he had done.”

For the next few years Pervez, along with most of his friends, “wanted to be Shahid Afridi.” To meet him – no, to share the same space as him – was something they could only dream of. And when Cecil relocated to Canada in 2000, he had moved that much further away from his childhood idol.

Earlier this week, Cecil was among several local players from the Brampton Wolves who introduced themselves to the rest of the international stars. Cecil told them that he was a medium-pacer who played for Canada. “And then I said, ‘Shahid bhai, I play for the Shahid Afridi Cricket Club’. He put his head out [to get a proper view of Cecil] and nodded. He knew I play for them, but he still gave me a nice smile.”

It’s taken 23 years, but Afridi has, inadvertently, turned some childhood fantasies into adult reality.

In case you have forgotten how long ago ago he arrived on the scene, Afridi will remind you of his longevity.

 

A questioner at a press conference – after Afridi’s 40-ball 81 helped Brampton Wolves to a comfortable win over Edmonton Royals at the second edition of the GT20 – began: “A lot of Canadians have seen your wonders for the first time. I mean here, in this part of the world. Your batting was so special today… ”

Which was when Afridi interrupted with: “You didn’t watch the Sahara Cup in ’97?”

The questioner chuckled: “Sahara Cup! Those below 25 weren’t even born then.”

Afridi didn’t argue the point. But it was a reminder that of all the active cricketers, he remains the most durable. He started his international career well before Gayle, Shoaib Malik and Yuvraj Singh. His coach at Brampton Wolves, Lance Klusener, debuted the same year as him.

And yet. Afridi keeps playing like Afridi has always played. Batting is such a difficult craft that it demands that batsmen evolve, making allowance for age as well as the game’s transformation. It turns sedate practitioners into chargers. And often makes belligerent players more subdued.

Afridi has probably undergone some shifts of his own but the joy he imparts – and the anticipation that awaits his arrival – seem to suggest that he has remained largely the same. Afridi hadn’t played any cricket for four months – since the PSL – so today, he decided to take it easy for “five or six balls”, gauge the conditions and the pitch, and then launch into the bowling.

Three balls were enough as sighters. The fourth was sliced to the backward point fence. The fifth and six were kept out. The seventh was glided to the third man fence. The eighth flicked for another four. And the ninth delicately angled to the third man fence for yet another four. Afridi was now on 18 off 9 balls. The crowd were on their feet. And the bowlers were running for cover. It could have been ’97. Or 2004. Or anytime, really, in this storied career.

Later in the game Afridi took the wicket of Mohammad Hafeez and celebrated with his signature ‘starman’. After the match he was asked if he would consider un-retiring rom international cricket to take part in the World T20 next year. He said he had no such plans but, honestly, would it surprise anyone if Afridi did indeed take back his decision to retire? And would it surprise anyone if he lit up the next World T20? Or the one after that?

A large part of Afridi’s charm resides in his unchangeability. It doesn’t matter how old he is or where he is playing. The talk surrounding him is largely the same. The anticipation still just as heady. And the expectation is always of a boundary – every time the ball approaches him.

There was a moment today when Afridi smashed Ben Cutting for a six and a four to move to 54 off 24 balls. One look at the scorecard and the mind instinctively did a quick calculation. Forty-six runs required in 13 balls. Five sixes and four fours would do it. Could he? Would he?

The point was not whether Afridi was going to get a hundred off 37 balls. The point was that, after all these years, he was getting those watching to still imagine the possibility. That alone tells us so much.

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