Inquisitive eyes searched for him at every corner of Eden Gardens, but Shahid Afridi was conspicuous by his absence. The Pakistan T20 captain skipped the team’s training session at the Eden on Tuesday, sending the rumour mill spinning for a while. Afridi has courted controversy back home for his remark on arrival here, about getting “more love” in India than Pakistan. Even a PIL has been filed, condemning his statement. Little wonder then that Afridi’s non-participation in training — he was not even at the dressing room — allowed enough room for headlines-seekers to try connecting the dots. Clarification from the Pakistan camp arrived soon. Afridi, down with fever, felt a little too uncomfortable to turn up. He remains a doubtful starter as Pakistan open their World T20 Super 10 campaign against Bangladesh on Wednesday.
Coach Waqar Younis confirmed the uncertainty. “He was in poor shape this morning. We will see how he is as the day goes,” he said. Not that Afridi is setting the stands on fire with his cricket. Far from it. Between January 1, 2015 and March 15, 2016 he has played 17 T20 internationals, scoring 173 runs at 12.35. He has made only two runs in the last three innings he batted in this format — 2 and 0 against India and Bangladesh in the Asia Cup and another duck in the warm-up fixture against Sri Lanka yesterday.
Still Afridi is big in Pakistan’s context, offering star quotient and more importantly, for his big-hitting prowess. He might be struggling for form, but the 36-year-old still fits into the role of a game-changer.
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“In Twenty20 cricket, one good innings is just what is needed sometimes. We are hoping that is the story with Shahid Afridi; that he is just one match away from hitting form,” said Younis.
Afridi is also the team’s No. 1 spinner. In fact, it’s sort of role reversal for him as he seems to have entered the final lap of his career. Pakistan have a relatively inexperienced spin attack apart from their skipper. Left-arm spinner Imad Wasim made a good impression in the warm-up game, taking 4/25 in four overs, but with just eight T20 internationals under his belt, it might be expecting a little too much from him to play the lead. Pakistan need Afridi for their World T20 opener.
They also have to improve their batting that faltered badly in the Asia Cup. Matches in Dhaka, however, had been played on green-tops and every team struggled to get going in the first seven-eight overs. The re-laid pitch at Eden Gardens has played very well in the warm-up matches and Mohammad Hafeez looked solid during his 49-ball 70 not out against Sri Lanka. It was a welcome return to form for the senior batsman on the heels of a poor Asia Cup but collective effort, once again, was missing. Sharjeel Khan, Ahmed Shehzad, Sarfraz Ahmed and Umar Akmal threw away their wickets after getting starts.
The team management is entitled to ask for a bit more consistency.
The lead-up hasn’t been ideal for Pakistan. They would have been better off, avoiding the drama and uncertainty that surrounded their participation in this tournament. Younis hoped it wouldn’t have a negative effect on performance.
“We had a bit of drama before coming here, some controversy yesterday (they couldn’t hold an evening practice session because the Eden curator started watering the centre wicket after the warm-up game) also. My message to the boys will be to leave everything behind. Because, this is about playing for the nation; playing quality cricket. They are all capable of playing good cricket. We are the kind of team that once we click, once we get the momentum going, we can surprise people.”
Not often do Bangladesh start on an equal footing against an elite cricket nation. But Mashrafe Mortaza’s side has been on the rise and might have better balance than their more fancied rivals. Bangladesh reached the Asia Cup final beating Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They were imposing in the World T20 qualifiers as well. Fast bowler Taskin Ahmed will be joining the team after appearing for independent testing of his action at the ICC-accredited centre in Chennai. Another seamer, Mustafizur Rahman, who had pulled his hamstring during the Asia Cup, put in a good shift in the nets today. Bangladesh have progressed enough to be an equal match for Pakistan in the shortest format.
Younis backs Afridi
Meanwhile, Younis has thrown his weight behind Afridi in the ‘more love/fan following in India’ controversy. “I didn’t find anything that controversial in it. This is something he felt, it was his emotions. I believe we should leave that, rather than talking more about it and taking controversy out of nothing. We are here to play cricket, we are here to beat the team, we are here to play positive cricket. We should focus on cricket is a better idea.”