Think of Shahid Afridi and you think of superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics, though on more occasions than not he appears as a real life spoof of Stan Lee’s iconic creations than the great saviour against all odds; a blundering combine of Spider Man, Superman, Batman, et al. Just about all the time we see him off to the rescue only to smash into a wall as he mistimes a leap 100 stories high or punch the victim while tackling the kidnapping villain. Perhaps a title of Captain Pakistan settles well upon him, especially now that he is in effect back on the lead horse.
Or can he be counted as the man from history, the Robin Hood of the entertainment starved poor in a world dominated by the sheriffs of Islamabad; the moody Achilles of Pakistan cricket who is called for when all else fails despite the knowledge that he has scant respect for his employers, fights alone within the charging army and places self actualization before the team role written for him. Except perhaps that he leaves the poor or the employers in no greater comfort more often than not. Once again he is less the real thing and more the imagined legend. As a wag would quip, he is the only cricketer dangerous for both sides.
So who, or perhaps what, is Shahid Afridi? Why is it that a man who is so callously willing to throw his wicket in a fit of bat rage from the first ball he faces can be the one who fills the stadia in local games and empties it upon his dismissal? Who is he who has a cult following that rivals that of rock stars or cine celebrities? Indeed he divides a nation and households; someone who polarizes opinion on his values and abilities no less than a certain Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did or Imran Khan does today. You either love him or hate him.
To understand him one has to become the psychiatrist Billy Crystal in Analyze This/That who tries to harness Robert De Niro’s impulsive angst and his excruciating inner conflict and all when the man himself demands that he be accepted for who he is.
See the movie and you’ll get the picture; except the challenge here is more complex than straightening out the mafiaso don and more akin to unraveling the concept of The Matrix.
If you ask the doctor to give it to you straight he’ll tell you that Shahid Afridi is an entertainer first and a performer second. The sooner you accept that the quicker you treat your blood pressure. He is the embodiment of the modern game, where the audience is as dispassionate about the romantics of the game as the baying crowd shouting for blood in the colosseum. Human values are for the old fashioned, the weak hearted.
Shahid’s entry into international cricket sealed his brand really; a 37-ball hundred against Sri Lanka in 1996 that transformed his role in the side from a leg spinner to a power hitting all rounder. He was 16 then, an age where you feel that you can change the world single handedly and that all who try and tell you otherwise are molding you back into the their own inefficiencies, their primal fears, their obtuse pessimism. When this stage of your life is coupled with a type ‘A’ individual it is a Molotov cocktail.
That lethal mixture has since been exploding not just on the cricket fields but in dressing rooms, chairmen’s suites, selection meetings and in front of the media. He comes with the paradoxical tag ‘Robust: handle with care’ and those interacting with him, let alone confronting him, disregard that at their peril. Since the past 18 years, Afridi is, and has made aware that he is, his own man; that the world must bend to understand where he is coming from. The sooner the selectors, captain, management, fellow players, spectators recognize that the better it is for them.
His volatile approach has over the years tempted his captains to push him up to open, erroneously assuming that his firepower is in sync with his mind power. That perhaps destroyed him as a batsman where more pragmatically thinking strategists channeled similar types like Andrew Symonds and recently Corey Anderson (who broke Afridi’s fastest century record) to become more effective in the nascent stage.
He has walked out of Test cricket at the drop of a hat when he had a batting average of 36.51 and a strike rate of 86.91 for his 1700-plus runs which included 5 hundreds in 27 Tests and continued to play in limited overs format (perhaps because it is suited more to his limited patience level with pace of play) where he is perhaps the only cricketer to have reached over 7500 runs with an average of less than 25 with 6 hundreds in 381 games. He did so saying he feels limited over games is more his forte. Analyse that!
There is something about Shahid they will say. In mid play he has abused Harbhajan for no apparent reason yet thrown a kiss at Gautum Gambhir. He has bitten a cricket ball trying to beat 26 cameras catching him in the act, swiveled in the middle of a cricket pitch with his spikes assuming cameras are off during overs, yet fights for integrity in the game.
He recognizes no authority but himself and demands control over his destiny. It took a notification from PCB to halt his continuously impulsive and immediate referrals to DRS when appeals were turned down off his own bowling, with scant regard for skipper Misbah who is the sole authority to decide.
He is a man obsessed to be seen as the best in his trade. He can’t stand being outshone, no matter what humility he propagates. In the very first IPL in spring of 2008 he had to make a delayed entry for Deccan Chargers as Pakistan hosted Bangladesh. When in the opening match Brendon McCullum pummeled 158 off 73 balls for Kolkata Knight Riders Afridi’s first reaction from home was that he would better that the moment he went over. To the dismay of Deccan Chargers and captain VVS Laxman, Afridi spent the entire tournament in a fit of heave-ho off the very first ball in every game despite orders to quit his maverick style. Some US$675,000 spent by DC on purchasing him went waste with every slapstick dismissal of his within minutes of walking in. He was shunned from the team near the end of the tournament.
Many therefore wonder how a man with such multiple vicissitudes can be given a leadership role. But it cannot be denied that Shahid Afridi is a brave man; admittedly reckless but nevertheless resolute. He has a simplistic plan which is basically to forge ahead and see what holds forth. Like Imran Khan he values those who give their hundred percent and youngsters in the team look up to him because he stands up for them, protects them from their own devils and gives them a clear message that like him they should not be afraid to lose.
In doing that he has captured the essence of leadership; self belief. Many fault him for letting down the team but forget that in the 2011 World Cup he time and again singularly rescued his side with his bowling; without him they would not have reached the semi finals. And there his self control on the field as five catches went down, showed an unrecognized maturity. A year earlier he had bent down to console a near weeping Saeed Ajmal after he had conceded some 20 odd runs in the last over to lose the semi final of the World Twenty20 where Pakistan were defending champions. How many captains would do that?
Though the game makes him who he is, Afridi has travelled beyond cricket now. This has become his pastime. Do not watch him as a cricketer. If you try and make sense of what he does and why he does what he does, and how it relates to what is happening on the cricket field, you are eligible for a noble prize if you succeed. He is cricket’s Mario Balotelli long before the Italian and ex-Man City, ex-Inter and now Liverpool striker makes coaches bang their heads against walls.
As such, it might be simpler to recount an incident that happened once with Jose Mourinho which should help explain what happens with Afridi:
“I remember one time when we went to play Kazan in the Champions League. In that match I had all my strikers injured. No Diego Milito, no Samuel Eto’o, I was really in trouble and Mario was the only one.
“Mario got a yellow card in the 42nd minute, so when I got to the dressing room at half-time I spent about 14 minutes of the 15 available speaking only to Mario.
“I said to him: ‘Mario, I cannot change you, I have no strikers on the bench, so don’t touch anybody and play only with the ball. If we lose the ball no reaction, if someone provokes you, no reaction, if the referee makes a mistake, no reaction.’
“The 46th minute – red card!”
That for you is Shahid Afridi. But unlike Balotelli, he does not work under a regime but rather anxious administrators who let him do his thing. Perhaps it is for the better as they themselves have failed to instill a system of sense and sensibility that mentors youngsters. In Pakistan cricket, it takes a mindset that is Shahid Afridi to harness the negatives into a winning situation. Which is why he roams the fields like an unbridled wild stallion, proud of his independence and magically attractive to those who wish to be free of the mundane?