Shahid Afridi addresses press conferences in a manner none too different from the way he plays his cricket: in a hurry. ‘In a hurry’, in fact, doesn’t quite capture it. Tabadtod, a Hindi/Urdu adjective which can loosely be translated as — but contains more crunch than — “at a breakneck speed”, comes closer. Afridi’s batting is tabadtod, as is his quickish leg-spin, and the replies are tabadtod too, as words come gushing forth when he answers questions.(Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
Watching him out there in the middle or behind the microphone, you get the feeling that a more pressing issue is simultaneously unfolding somewhere that requires his urgent, undivided attention. And, therefore, he just wants to get over with whatever he is doing quickly.
As he rushed through the queries at the pre-match media interaction at the PCA Stadium in Mohali on Monday, there was indeed a pressing issue that must have been gnawing at him. After an emphatic 55-run win over Bangladesh in Kolkata, the Afridi-led team promptly, and equally emphatically, lost the next match to India. They now face a red-hot New Zealand and more worryingly, an early exit from the World T20.
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While the result in the opening match had papered over the cracks in their batting and overall planning, India brutally exposed each of those on their way to making it 11-0 against the arch-rivals at an world event.
It also seems to have pushed Afridi closer to his end.
“Afriddi ne retairmant nai lai, saddi jaan le layi hai.”
There is this spoof channel on YouTube that dubs a variety videos in Punjabi, superimposing witty one liners over actual soundbytes. It is done with a comic timing that is often deadly in effect. Shahid Afridi is a perennial favourite of this parody channel, and speculation over the retirement of the 36-year-old is a common trope. The creative forces behind this account put the aforementioned words – which essentially mean: “the long wait over Afridi’s retirement is like slow death for us” – in the mouth of a Pakistani fan who is voicing his frustration after the defeat to India in the Asia Cup. Since a loss against India is especially unforgivable in Pakistan, the tragedy manifests itself in various forms: in this case, comedy. The lovable Lala, therefore, becomes lampooned Lala. Not entirely unfairly, as the numbers suggests.
As has been mentioned before, Pakistan are now 11-0 against India in the last 24 years in limited-overs cricket’s showpiece events. As a player, Afridi has been part of nine of those. He has seen defeats to India at the World Cup become from a stray case to a streak to now a full-blown jinx. He has himself failed in all nine of those matches. Against India in four ODI World Cups, he has averaged 14 with the bat and 140 with the ball. The corresponding record in the five World T20s has been 7.40 with the bat and 50 with the ball.
For long, he has escaped the blame. But nowadays, not even Misbah-Ul-Haq is there to share the debit. In front of the press, he tries to resort to witticism to deflect criticism.
“Younis Khan ki chhodiye, cricket ne to bohot logo to rulaya hai,” he says, and the press room guffaws.
The answer is mostly irrelevant to the question, but it doesn’t matter.
“I have seen many cricketers quit the game, but I want to thank god for giving me the strength to play for so long. But, all that matters is that I and my team give my 100 percent in the field. Result is a different thing, but if we give our best I don’t think Pakistan’s aawam would have any problem.”
In the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster, The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) tells Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale), “Either you die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” You can tailor this line and fit in sporting contexts too. That either you retire a hero, or see yourself become a villain. Or, in Afridi’s case, a caricature.
Afridi was never supposed to last this long. Not with his technique, or lack of it. Or temperament, the nonchalance of it. In a recent interview with ESPNCricinfo, he himself admitted it. “I never thought I would play this long. At the time I thought, I’ve got an entry, a little more will be fine.”
In what is at once a compliment to his explosive style and an indictment of his over-reliance on it, is the fact that he has taken the fewest numbers balls and the most number of matches to reach 8,000 runs in ODI cricket. It shows his increasingly limited and infrequent contribution with the bat to the team’s cause. But, along the way, he reinvented himself as a more than handy leg-spinner. In the World Cup 2011, he was the joint leading wicket-taker alongside India’s Zaheer Khan. But a bad back took a toll on his bowling. He was never a big turner of the ball, but used to generate a good amount of drift.
Over the last few years the drift has gone and it curtailed his effectiveness in that department as well.
It was evident in the match against India, when on a viciously turning track at Eden, he could pose little threat to MS Dhoni and Co.
After Tuesday, depending on the result, Afridi will have at least or at the most one more game left in career. He has said he would retire after the World T20, but has since proceeded to give mixed signals, saying that there is pressure on him from his family and friends not to retire after the event. But reports from Pakistan say the board is planning to sack him.
“What people are saying is up to them, but as a captain I am just concerned about my team’s and my performance. I have belief in my and team’s ability that we will make the best use of our skills in tomorrow’s game. New Zealand is a good team, they have been playing good cricket for a few years now, but conditions are different. It’s also a different event and we have the hunger (bhook) to win the next match,” he says.
You can’t say Afridi is unperturbed. The creases on his forehead, the fidgetiness of his manner betray his concerns. He needs a release. The shadows have grown longer at the ground in Mohali. Pakistan have finished their practice session but a figure in green strides out to the centre square.
Left-arm akimbo and the bat resting on the shoulder right shoulder like a club, Afridi strikes a quintessential Shahid Khan Afridi pose. He looks around at the vast vacant space around him, probably making a mental note of where the New Zealand fielders will be on Tuesday evening. Then he nods at a support staff member at the other end. As the ball is hurled at him, he clears the front leg and swings hard at it. Over the next half-an-hour or so, you hear mostly a combination of two sounds: the ball meeting the bat and the ball meeting the seats in the stands.
The message is loud and clear: Afridi, if indeed he is nearing his end, he is rushing forward to meet it, with an exhibition of tabadtod batting.