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Shahid Afridi — the unpredictable sledgehammer

© Getty Images
Shahid Afridi stands beyond statistics © Getty Images

By Venkataraman Ganesan

To paraphrase a beautiful quote by the late Henri Nouwen, “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’ They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and now”

While this ordained Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Utrecht might not have been a fan of cricket, he might have unwittingly and presciently succeeded in describing one of the most mercurial cricketers to have either wielded a willow or spun a cherry — Shahid Afridi. Undeterred by the foibles of the past and unaffected by the frailty fraught in the future, Afridi epitomizes the joy of thriving in the ‘Now’. And how! This erratic but exhilarating Pakistani’s now is untrammeled, uninhibited, albeit uncertain. Absolutely refusing to be sequestered by even a whiff of ‘if’, and showing utter disdain to the dictates of the ‘oughts’, Afridi envelopes his present with a surreal unrestraint. A total lack of prohibition which makes him either heave his way towards immortality or hoick to infamy. When an Afridi plan comes to fruition, carnage would be putting things in the mildest perspective. However Afridi gone awry can be a purely diabolical event in so far as insensibilities are concerned. This Afridi paradox is such a familiar feature of modern day cricket that one of the most often used and abused clichés adorning the commentators’ microphone is “it is unsure as to which Afridi would turn up today with a bat in hand”

While Afridi is a capable game changer with either bat or ball, the most electrifying and dramatic of this all-rounder’s escapades involve the brandishing of the blade. A blade which to him is more of a scythe or a rapier. Irrespective of the Afridi who shows up on any given day, the effect on friends, foes and neutrals is cathartic. The striding out to the middle of this normally unshaven and strapping protagonist unfailingly triggers a frenzy of anticipation amongst the multitude thronging a cricket stadium. Once his innings is on the move, bouts of emotional upheavals accompany him at the crease. Every Afridi smack, smite, slash, swipe, slap and strike evokes either a rapturous approval of delight or a recriminating sense of foreboding. Curses and prayers compete with each other depending upon whether the bowlers are being pummeled or played with callousness. Every astonishing stroke inevitably succeeds in finding an appalling counterpart. A mystical flick off the hips that sends the ball careening out of the ground is immediately succeeded by an ugly howler of a skier. Watching an Afridi innings, however brief in its tenure (excepting the dreaded first baller) is akin to taking a hysterical ride featuring the Transformers in a Universal Studio campus.

A wonderful feature characterizing the cricket of this feisty all-rounder is the scant regard towards statistics and averages. Numbers do not seem to convey any meaningful import and they are best left to the breed of the hawk-eyed statisticians taking perverse delight in highlighting petty denominations. For example the fact that prior to his unforgettable blitzkrieg against arch rivals India in the ongoing Asia Cup 2014, he had failed to go past 20 deliveries on the previous 10 occasions mattered a rat’s posterior to Afridi.

The statistics were a faded, jaded and blunted thing of the past. What was relevant was the score of 250 which his team needed to chase. The indispensable need of the hour was a clobbering of the Indian bowlers and he calmly proceeded to give vent to such a need by doing exactly what he does best — clobbering the bowlers. As Ravichandran Ashwin disappeared into the stands off successive deliveries, the task which Afridi had assigned himself was complete and so was the rout. Let statistics be damned!

Engulfed in a sea of uproarious fellow Pakistanis raucously celebrating a famous victory, Afridi with arms akimbo and a beatific smile adorning his sharp features represented an epitome of a star basking in the pristine moment of the present, and solely the present. Just a couple of days later, it was the turn of the hapless Bangladeshis to bear the complete and vengeful wrath of an Afridi rampaging in the present. Chasing a seemingly insurmountable score of 326, Pakistan were 220-odd for the loss of 5 wickets and facing a daunting required run rate of over 10 runs an over. As statisticians waxed and waned over the fact that Pakistan had never chased down such a total over 322, Afridi decided to flex his muscles and rip.

Colossal sixes thundered down upon the befuddled bowlers and misery poured forth in the form of a savagery that was remorseless. By the time Afridi was run out for a mind numbing 59 scored off 34 balls, the annihilation of the hosts was complete. Pakistan duly completed the last rites and won with a ball to spare. Two hoots to statistics!

However, this sworn enemy of statistics has had his fair share of detractors and rightly so. Compromising discretion at the altar of flamboyance and flair, Afridi has cost his team heavily on more occasions than just one. Injudicious stroke play and inattention to the need of the hour have frustrated fans and team mates alike. His on-field behavior and off the pitch antiques have not exactly covered him in glory. His refusal to lead Pakistan against Australia in the second Test following defeat in the opening Test — during the 2010 tour to England caused a mini crisis of sorts.

For all his indisputable abilities, he has played only 27 Tests before retiring in sharp contrast to over 376 One-Day Internationals (ODIs), thereby firmly being bracketed as a cricketer perfecting the art of the shorter version of the game. Even in the limited overs version, while he boasts an enviable strike rate that is close to 116, his average of just 23.44 leaves much to be desired.

But as Afridi himself would be tempted to exclaim (in all probability), “let statistics be screwed!” And we agree! The tremors of thrill which have been the inimitable contributions of this marvelous cricketer sufficiently compensate the abject moments of disappointment and dejection. Gilbert Jessop whose Test Debut preceded Afridi’s One Day International career by 97 years is best remembered for his breathtaking batsmanship. HS Altham once famously remarked that “no cricketer that has ever lived hit the ball so often, so fast and with such a bewildering variety of strokes”. Yet the great ‘Croucher’ finished his cricketing career with a Test Match average of just 21.88. At the peril of remarkable repetition “to hell with statistics!”

When this unique cricketer finally decides to call time, putting an end to the retirement-rescinding retirement-re retirement rigmarole, he would have left behind a legacy, vibrant in its accomplishments. However his greatest contribution to the game of cricket would be the lending the virtue of beauty to the element of unpredictability.

Shahid Afridi is one of those few cricketers possessing an uncanny capability of making unpredictability – beautiful.

(Venkataraman Ganesan is a Chartered Accountant by intent and a lawyer by accident. He has a maniacal penchant for books, more books, still more books and lot more books, when he is not watching cricket that is! He loves his Scotch and scribbles for fun. He blogs at www.the-venkyloquist.com)

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