The Departing Vitruvian Man
On a balmy Colombo evening, when Shahid Afridi walked out at the R Premadasa Stadium on October 4, 2012, the stage was laid out for him to be the messiah. Pakistan had just lost their fifth wicket, that of skipper Hafeez with 91 on board. Another 49 runs were required to knock out our Sri Lankan hosts from the T20 World Cup semi-final.
Alas, Afridi failed. He was bowled the first ball by Rangana Herath. Feet rooted to the crease, an uncertain stance, angled bat and eyes that betrayed none of Afridi’s trademark swagger. Another golden-duck was named after him. The magic from those whirring wrists and the twirling wand had vanished. There were no moments of wizardry coming that were often associated with the man known as Boom Boom Afridi.
Boom boom? Not any more.
As Pakistan bowed out of the tournament, calls for culling of senior players increased and Afridi’s performance was rightly questioned. That his spot was in danger after his horror show was never in doubt. But what did come as a surprise was the relative apathy shown by his supporters at his subsequent removal from the ODI squad, which was supposed to travel to India in a week’s time. Despite being part of the T20 team, this perhaps is the time to start a countdown to closure. Perhaps, it is correct to mark this tour as the beginning of the end of a remarkably fascinating but a grossly misunderstood career.
When the news of his non-selection came through, my first thought was how is it going to be following a Pakistani team which will not have its biggest – and perhaps its only – superstar? Will we still watch matches with as much interest? Will we break into a spontaneous \O/ pose with the fall of every wicket taken by a Pakistani bowler? Will we ever have palpitations similar to what was induced when we watched Afridi bat? Will we continue supporting a player despite all of his inconsistencies and flaws? Will we win more often? But above all, will we be entertained?
All the above mentioned questions, I’d like to believe; can be answered with a resounding YES. Yet, following Pakistan’s cricket will never be the same once the glorious Lala hangs his boots. I don’t intend to write this blog as an Afridi hagiography necessarily (though I’d be most happy to write one) but the fact of the matter is Afridi has single-handedly defined Pakistan’s cricket in the last decade-and-a-half.
Afridi became part of the team when they were served by the golden generation of the 1990s such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saeed Anwar, Moin Khan and others. But by the beginning of the noughties, things had changed. The senior crop retired and the sheen wore off. It was Afridi then who rose like a phoenix and under the mentorship of the late Bob Woolmer, grew in stature.
From 2004 till 2011, Afridi scored almost 1,000 runs in 13 test matches with an average of 40. He played some valiant, match-winning knocks in ODIs as well as took over 200 wickets and of course, single-handedly won Pakistan the 2009 World T20. After taking over as captain, he guided the team through tough times and led them towards back-to-back semi-finals in the 2010 World T20 and 2011 World Cup. Throughout all this time, he was the gravitation pull around which the team functioned. He was their motivator, their energiser, their trump-card. Quite simply, he was the sole superstar of this team.
Why, then, within a year, have things come to such a passe where his absence from the team raises merely murmurs of protest? The reason is stunningly obvious. As sports writer Osman Samiuddin recently mentioned, “He [Afridi] was not 16 when he hit that first hundred in 1996 and he is not 32 going on 33 now”, Father Time decided to show his cards. Fitness woes caught up with the sportsman and his form dipped alarmingly, across the formats, affecting his entire skill set.
For a rational mind, it was an easy conclusion to make, keeping his recent performances in mind. But knowing that rationality never works with Afridi, why should we expect any better from his fans? On that evening in Colombo, for the first time ever since his debut, I contemplated a Pakistan cricket team with the number 10 jersey worn by somebody other than Lala.
I do believe he needs to step down. He must not sully his reputation by over staying and underperforming. The desire to perform is there, but the body is betraying and year 2012 gave enough signs for him to pay heed. I am still unsure what his retirement – whenever it comes and surely, it can’t be too far – means. Performance wise, he may be replaceable. But can you ever replace charisma?
Let’s hope may we all witness the swansong of this great entertainer reminding us why we will continue to yearn for that \O/ gesture.