By Scott MacLean
If there’s one reason alone to get down to the Cake Tin for Friday night’s T20 it might not be to watch Williamson, Guptill, Munro etc go about their work. Rather it could be to see one Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi go about his work in New Zealand for possibly the last time.
No one has quite burst onto the international scene like Afridi did. Drafted into the Pakistan side at 16 to replace Mustaq Ahmed for an ODI tournament to celebrate Kenyan Cricket’s centenary, he didn’t actually bat or bowl in his debut against the hosts. Next time out though came the birth of the legend; sent in as a pinch-hitter at No3 against Sri Lanka, Afridi blasted 11 sixes on his way to a century off just 37 balls, both the fastest (until broken by Corey Anderson), and youngest, which he still holds.
Inevitably such a performance also raised questions over his age (even the clip above has it listed as 21!), though in the fullness of time and that he’s played 20 international seasons since, was probably legitimate.
It also led to massive expectations, ones he’s arguably fulfilled. At one stage he held three of the seven fastest ODI hundreds; and of the current fastest 20 only AB de Villiers’ name appears more often than his. Across nearly 400 ODI’s from his debut until his retirement after the last World Cup he compiled a strikerate of 117 with six hundreds – one coming in Toronto of all places against India – and 39 50’s. With an average of just 23.57 it was often a case of being there for a good time not a long time though, but that didn’t stop his innings being a must-see for just what he might do.
With the ball he’s reinvented himself. Few remember he started out as a fast bowler, changing to leg spin and modelling himself on the great Abdul Qadir after accusations of throwing. His armoury became wide and varied; using changes of pace rather than flight and drift, and his manner of hustling through overs became something in itself as batsmen were left wondering where the overs went. As good as he was with the bat; he could be just as destructive with the ball. He became his country’s talismanic figure, even more so after the retirement of Wasim Akram in 2004.
Success in Test cricket proved elusive, with the long-form not really suiting his style. Afridi still scored 5 centuries, and like his ODI career scored his first in his second match; and Pakistan never lost when he made three figures. Averages of 36 with the bat (at a strikerate of 86!) and 35 with the ball aren’t anything to be sneezed at, but he retired from Tests in 2006, save for a one-off unsuccessful return in 2010.
The advent of T20 cricket proved a boon. If ever someone was perfectly suited to the crash and bash of the games shortest form it was Afridi. No need to build an innings with the bat, just go out there and hammer away. With the ball he was the master strangler, choking opposing batsmen from scoring shots and almost inevitably leading them to ill-advised strokes under the pressure.
Few it seemed, could turn the fortunes of a match with bat or ball like he could. At the inaugural ICC T20 tournament in South Africa in 2007 he was Player of the Tournament; at the second in England he took control at the business end of the competition, scoring 51 off 34 balls and then taking 2/16 in the semi-final against South Africa and followed that with an unbeaten 54 off 40 as they beat Sri Lanka. His international T20 strikerate stands at an outstanding 150, with an economy rate of 6.60 with the ball almost as good.
The emergence of international leagues made him a man in demand (though he hasn’t played in the daddy of them all – the Indian Premier League – since 2008 because of the league’s ban on Pakistani players) and with it more money than he could have dreamed of growing up. Allied with his fame he’s put that into charity work for many causes, finally establishing his own foundation in 2014 and named as one of the world’s most charitable athletes last year.
If there is a tragedy in all of this, it’s that owing to incidents and security concerns that his own countrymen have infrequently been able to witness him play internationally at home, and before Zimbabwe’s visit last year, not at all since the machine-gun attack on the Sri Lankan team in 2009. For that alone we should consider ourselves quite fortunate to have seen one of cricket’s greats – and cult heroes – as often as we have. We may never see someone quite like him again.
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