Until October 4, 1996, Shahid Afridi was known as a good-looking, young prodigy who could blossom in due course of time to become a regular fixture in the Pakistani side. Just two days earlier, on October 2, he made his debut against Kenya, but didn’t walk out to bat even after the fall of the sixth wicket. However, against Sri Lanka, he was promoted to the No 3 slot, and little did the cricketing world expect what was to follow. A 16-year-old Afridi blazed his way to a hundred in just 37 balls, the fastest ever in One-Day Internationals — a record that remains intact till date.
In just the second delivery of his first international innings, he socked the ball for a six over mid-wicket. Thereafter, he cleared the rope on 10 more occasions, and quickly equalled Sanath Jayasuriya’s record of sixes (11) in One-Day Internationals (ODIs). He hammered as many as 90 runs in 17 scoring strokes and emphatically announced what his modus operandi would be on the big stage, irrespective of the bowling attack. That innings created an aura around him, and it would be safe to say that it lingered even after his batting prowess had long faded away.
For the next many months, he never scored a hundred in either format of the game, but the crowds went berserk every time he walked out to the middle, anticipating carnage from his willow. He looked to attack right from the first delivery, something that was applauded back then, but was seen as tomfoolery during the later stages of his career. In the September of 1998, just when questions were being raised on his position in the batting line-up, Afridi opened the innings and slaughtered a frail Indian attack during the Sahara Cup at Toronto. His 115 off 94 deliveries gave Pakistan an unassailable lead in the series, and he was instantly placed on a pedestal back home.
In some circles, after his performance in Canada, he was being hailed as Pakistan’s best all-rounder since Imran Khan. The five for 52 he took on his Test debut against Australia, just one month after his ton at Toronto against India, fuelled that belief. From September 1998 to the end of 2000, runs flew sporadically from Afridi’s blade, but the Test at Chennai in 1999 — which is fondly remembered for India’s fumble after Sachin Tendulkar’s heroics — breathed fresh life into his career. He was single-handedly responsible for steering Pakistan to a formidable total on a crumbling pitch to set India a target of 271 runs. The hosts fell short by 12 runs.
His next Test hundred was registered only in 2002, against the West Indies at Sharjah, where he meticulously made his way to 107 off 150 deliveries. Just when it appeared as though he’d done enough to command a regular place in the Test side, a failed series against New Zealand three months later saw him exit the arena, and thereafter, he was left out for a good 32 months. Nevertheless, he continued to plunder opponents in the ODIs, barring the period during which he was temporarily dropped after a disastrous outing in the 2003 World Cup. In 2004, he treated the Indian bowlers with disdain, scoring 80 off 58 deliveries during an ODI at Rawalpindi, and one year later scored one of his most memorable centuries, against the same opponents, at Kanpur.
It was this 46-ball-102 that made Afridi a feared batsman, yet again, and associated him firmly with the nickname ‘Boom Boom’. One year after that momentous innings, in April 2006, he called it quits from Test cricket, albeit temporarily. He returned in 2010 to captain his side at Lord’s, but retired immediately after a horrendous performance. However, it was after 2006 that he comprehended the fact that he could add more value to the Pakistani side with his leg-spin. He became the highest wicket-taker in the 2007 T20 World Cup, which eventually led to him being winning the Player of the Series award. From then till the end of the 2011 World Cup in the sub-continent, Afridi featured in 82 ODIs and 40 T20s, picking 112 and 53 wickets respectively, at averages of 31.25 and 17.50. The problem, however, was that his batting average was almost equal to his bowling average during this phase. He was also the captain of his side, which made matters all the more complicated. He was just doing enough with the ball to keep his place and position in the side.
With Afridi, controversies were never very far. He was first pulled up for sledging the Indian batsmen during the World Cup fixture at Centurion in 2003, scuffed the pitch at Faisalabad during a Test against England in 2005, banned for four ODIs for brandishing his bat at a spectator during a tour to South Africa in 2007, bites the ball in full view of cameras during an ODI against Australia at Perth in 2010, and not to discount, his many tiffs with team-mates and former captains right throughout his career.
Despite his on-field and off-field antics, Afridi continues to be one of the most popular figures on the international stage. His unique celebration at the fall of a wicket — arms outstretched and fingers pointing to the sky — will be etched in the minds of many. Multiple retirements, and subsequent retractions notwithstanding, there are people who still do not get enough of the entertainment he dishes out with his presence in the middle. Let us hope this ageless wonder regains some of his lost charm, and, importantly, retains it this time around.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)
First Published: March 1, 2013, 3:15 pm