Imran triggered awe, Miandad made you cuss and smile, Akram offered jaw-dropping art and the young Waqar thrilled. But no Pakistani has offered as much zany fun as Shahid Afridi. Ever. It’s easy to cry, pray, and clap for a Roger Federer or a Maradona or a Lara but to have your hormones on a rollercoaster for lesser-abled sportsmen, from another country, is uncommon. Such feelings usually stem from parochial love, and Afridi’s uninhibited playing style has this effect on us. Who, but him, could so coolly bite a ball as if it were an apple, and make you laugh instead of feeling moral anger about ball tampering?
That’s his greatest achievement, and also his failure. An impulsive man so incapable of controlling his baser urges was always going to be an inconsistent player who can tread morally ambiguous lines. There is, however, great pride in several Afridi fans that he hasn’t ever been accused of crossing the spot-fixing line. His fans believe he is a type of man who might tamper the pitch or the ball, or even make patriarchal comments about women, but won’t encash patriotism for money.
He is loved more in India because his frequent cricketing failures don’t hurt the fans, of course, and we are left free to really enjoy his success and smile at the familiarity with his failures.
On Wednesday afternoon, thousands at the Eden Gardens must have felt that indescribable joy of watching Afridi in full flow. All the usual narrative arcs in an Afridi story were there. The pre-match criticism from Pakistan over his statements on the love he feels from Indian fans had been particularly strong.
It’s in this context that he promoted himself in the batting order and found himself in the way of Mashrafe Mortaza, who wanted to tie him down from round the stumps. A pull and a nonchalant paddle fetched him two fours in three deliveries, but it was his response to the fourth that brought a smile.
PHOTOS: Afridi steals show at the Eden
The fourth delivery was a beamer, rushing at his chest, when Afridi lapped it up and over fine-leg for a nonchalant six. As ever, he rushed across to the non-striker to have a frantic chat. Afridi isn’t the types who stands and adores his sixes, instead he engages his partner with rapid talk — almost as a ploy to try arrest his adrenalin rush. Talk his way out of it.
One of these days, someone needs to ask his non-strikers of all eras whether says anything coherent at all, or if it’s just a jumble of words that rushes out of excitement. And because he is Afridi, he let the next one — a free hit ball — to go through to the wicket-keeper in assumption that it might be a wide.
Only the insular and blinkered, or the parents of Taskin Ahmed, could have suppressed laughter when Afridi absolutely bashed the living daylights of a short ball from Ahmed over extra cover boundary. He put his head down and sought the company of his non-striker.
He does the opposite when bowling. A spinner who has had to deal with insane expectations about his batting is at his cocky best when he has the ball in his hand. The talented Sabbir Rahman had hit couple of fours but was done in by a Afridi special — that whiplash slider that had the ball skidding rapidly through Rahman’s defences.
Cue pizzaz. Afridi struck his star-man pose, fingers pointing to the heavens, legs spread wide. Unlike while batting where he actively seeks proximity with the non-striker after a big hit, he just stands frozen in that pose, allowing his team-mates to rush in to mob him. Before his team-mates can reach him, pride, joy and showmanship jostle for space on his face as he stares into the far distance at nothing in particular.