11,185 runs and 540 wickets from 523 international matches later, Shahid Afridi will announce his retirement in style as only Afridi can © AFP
11,185 runs and 540 wickets from 523 international matches later, Shahid Afridi will announce his retirement in style as only Afridi can © AFP

As it happens, I stumble upon a rerun of one of the India vs Pakistan encounters at Sharjah from 1999, while flipping channels on television this Sunday morning.

18-year-old Shahid Afridi is bowling to a young Sourav Ganguly with captain Mohammad Azharuddin at non-striker’s end. Wasim Akram has just finished an over from the other end. Imran Khan is in the commentary box.

I am left shaking my head in awe at the longevity in the sport of the man who never aged.

As an Indian fan, I grew up with the Indo-Pak rivalry in cricket at the forefront of the imagination of the youth of both countries.

The 1978-79 tour of Pakistan when Kapil Dev made his debut, and the charisma and exploits of Imran Khan captured the hearts of Indian women, was a watershed moment.

It was the start of a rivalry that was to make the Ashes pale in comparison (at least in the subcontinent), and forever redefine what was important in the minds of sport-lovers in both countries. It did not matter how India did in a tournament or against any other team in the world as long as the team beat Pakistan.

And across the border, the sentiment was reciprocated.

And yet, just like for The Ashes, and indeed in any great rivalry, there was huge respect for the individuals in the other team involved in the game. Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Abdul Qadir, Majid Khan, were all to become household names in India.

A few years later, when despite Krishnamachari Srikkanth’s magnificent century in an ODI at Calcutta, Saleem Malik and Ijaz Ahmed were to bludgeon their way to victory in front of a disbelieving crowd that included a younger yours truly, there was stunned admiration for the feat from an appreciative crowd rather than the hostility that can sometimes be on view in recent times.

The rivalry intensified with the regular ODI matches being played at Sharjah in front of subcontinental crowds and telecast live in both countries.

While Pakistan had the better of India for much of this period, amid weary jokes in India about the futility of even playing in Sharjah on Fridays when clearly Allah was on Pakistan’s side, India too had her moments.

March 1985 springs to mind. Imran scythes through the Indian batting line up taking 6 for 14 in his 10 overs in one of the most hostile bowling spells in ODI history. The Indian team famously (and literally) goes to sleep during the long lunch, mentally exhausted. Kapil wakes them up, gives them an inspiring speech, and leads India to victory by dismissing Pakistan for 87 in a remarkable match for the ages.

But at the time, the hero of our story, Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi is only five years old and holding a kid’s bat for the very first time.

It will be 1996 when we first get to see Afridi in action. And what a beginning that is.

He will not be needed to bat against Kenya in his first match, but in his first innings as a batsman, batting at No. 3 in Pakistan’s second match of the tournament against Sri Lanka at Nairobi, he will score a century in 37-balls to announce his arrival to the world.

He will in the process break Sanath Jayasuriya’s 6-month old record in 11 fewer balls, and for good measure, he will score 41 of those 100 runs off 11 balls from the very same Jayasuriya.

Now that is a debut innings to remember!

Unbelievably, he will continue being the one permanent fixture of Pakistan cricket through all its ups and downs over the next 21 years. A period when between match fixing scandals, jail terms for its cricketers, public and media spats between player and player, between players and the Board, and the loss of home advantage because of terror and safety related issues, the only permanence in Pakistan cricket, other than Afridi, would be the pendulum swings in performance between sheer brilliance and utter rubbish.

And 11,185 runs and 540 wickets from 523 international matches later, Afridi will announce his retirement in style as only Afridi can, just after scoring a brilliant 28-ball 54 in the Pakistan Super League T20 tournament.

Let us stop and think about those numbers for a moment. Other than Jacques Kallis, who is clearly the outstanding all-rounder in modern Cricket, and one of the best ever, Afridi is the only player to have made more than 10,000 runs and taken more than 500 wickets in his international career.

It is a fact that Kallis made more than 25,000 runs and took 577 wickets and is in a class of his own. Kapil Dev came the closest to this exclusive group, with over 9,000 runs and almost 700 wickets from only 356 matches. But then, Kapil retired well before the advent of T20 cricket.

Notwithstanding this, Shahid Afridi’s achievement is truly extraordinary.

Throw into this mix the fact that he represented Pakistan.

No other country among the major cricket-playing nations has gone through quite the upheaval that Pakistan has in the past decade, and more.

And yet, through all this Afridi has kept his head down and continued representing his country with pride and success.

Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi was never about elegance, always about adrenaline; and pure unadulterated hormone-inducing, blood-pressure-raising, heart-stopping entertainment.

What made it even more special was that it was not boring and predictable. Even when you saw Afridi on the ground, he had not necessarily come to play.

He could as nonchalantly throw away his wicket with a nothing shot at the start (or indeed at any point) of his innings, as he could hit a century at record-breaking speed, demoralising the opposition.

India bear witness to a number of these assaults.

None more memorable than Kanpur 2005, when with the series tied 2-2 and chasing 250 for a win, Afridi came in and won the match virtually single-handed, scoring a century in 45 balls to hold the record for both the fastest and second-fastest centuries in ODI at the same time.

He could spend 5 overs bowling absolute rubbish and get carted around the park for 60 runs. And he could then come back and pick up 7 for 12 in an unplayable spell of leg-break and googly bowling on a pitch that gives no assistance, as he did in Guyana against the West Indies.

You could never say that Afridi did not provide you entertainment, even when he was on the field but did not show up for the game. He would be there, in your face, with his (sometimes) mindless aggression, which invariably made him lose his head.

And on the days that he did? Well, if you were lucky enough to be at the ground, or in front of the television, you would remember the occasion for a very long time, as we all do.

Cricket will miss one of its greatest entertainers.

Thankfully, we will still have the memories.