Last week Mushtaq Ahmed, former Pakistan legspinner, got a text message from New Zealand. It was from Shaheen Afridi, the teenaged pacer he had spotted and promoted in an U-16 camp a couple of years ago. “Mushy bhai, I am not getting wickets, what to do? What am I doing wrong?” Pakistan U-19 had played a series of warm-ups with Australia and the boy was fretting. A week later, in Pakistan’s second game, Afridi ran through Ireland with a six-for to emerge as potentially the most potent bowler to watch out for in this tournament.
Mushtaq says he brought up the reference of Wasim Akram to reassure Afridi. “I told him I have played several matches with Akram, and even he went wicketless in some games despite bowling well. What matters is whether you have the rhythm, and feeling good about how you are bowling. Rest will happen. Don’t worry.” A week later, Afridi has now started to make his presence felt in the cricketing world.
Not that Mushtaq is surprised. Even when Afridi came in for the at U-16 camp in Pakistan, Mushtaq was stunned by what he saw. “It was amazing. There are many young pacers in Pakistan and world wide who will catch your eye with their pace or say with their stock ball – inswinger or outswinger. Afridi had all that, but what stood out was the level of his cricket awareness, and skill set.”
“He could bowl round the stumps even back then and, most importantly, what amazed me was that he already had the knowledge of using the angles at crease. I can tell you after playing so many years for Pakistan and coaching international teams, it’s not common for young pacers to have that kind of awareness.”
Over a six-week camp, Mushtaq recalls spending a lot of time with Afridi, and gaining respect for the work ethic. “I would tell him to bowl with the old ball around the stumps, and next morning he would be there spending hours working on it. He has a wonderful repeatable action – which is very key to have consistent success at higher level.”
In September last year, on his first-class debut in Quaid-e-Azam tournament, Afridi took 8 for 39, best ever by a Pakistani on debut. The Youtube video is worth a watch: the ball cuts late to peg back off stump, swings in full from round the stumps, kicks up from short of length, curves away late as the youngster created quite a delightful ruckus.
Afridi hails from Landi Kotal — the western most part of Khyber — in many ways the door to Afghanistan. A tough hill terrain, which is often embroiled in battles and war, and especially came to the fore after the September 11 attacks in New York. There are many legends around Landi Kotal, known for its delicacy ‘Patta Tikka’ — lamb liver rolled into layer of fat taken from the stomach. But the sweetest story revolves around a chained tree. The story goes that a drunken English officer had his staff arrest the tree because he thought it was chasing him. It’s been a hundred years but the tree remains chained. Some of the citizens though have escaped. Some, like, Afridi moved to Peshawar after insurgency post 9/11 to work on their cricket. It was then that he met up with his coach Rashid Khan, and eventually ran into Mushtaq.
Mushtaq recalls the first match he set up for the U-16 players in the camp, when he watched a curious thing unfold as Afridi came to bowl. “He came around the stumps and I noticed he didn’t have a third man in. After the innings, I asked him the reason. ‘What’s the need for third man sir? I am thinking of two ways to get the batsman out from around the stumps: Lbw, and a catch behind with the straighter one. I want the batsman to open the bat-face and try run down to third man and I will get him then.’”
In Mushtaq’s mind, it was a moment that has stayed. “Bhai, yeh jo basic cheez lag raha hai, utna basic nahi hai. I have seen many international bowlers also clueless about such field placements or thinking. That told me that this boy mey dum hai. And that all I or Pakistan cricket need to do is to show faith in him – talk strategy to him perhaps, pass experiences from our careers, but best not to interfere too much. There are some bowlers who can be fast tracked. He is one of them.”
The hilly terrain of Landi Kotal, Mushtaq feels, has already played its part in Afridi’s development. “Pahadi ladka hai, he is very fit, and with all the tough things that happen in that region, he is already mentally fit I think. His brother Riaz who played a Test for Pakistan in 2004 has already put the sports dream in him.”
Afridi is someone who doesn’t offer excuses, Mushtaq says. “Just like most Pathan people I have to say. They are frank: I never found him saying pitch wasn’t good, he would just say, ‘I didn’t bowl well today’. A humble boy, he respects the seniors a lot, and above all, as I keep saying, his temperament is really solid. And with his skills and cricket awareness, he will surely play for Pakistan one day. Shayad, bahut jaldi hi.”
Brief scores: Pakistan U-19: 98 for 1 in 8.5 overs (Zaid Alam 43*) beat Ireland U-19 97 (Afridi 6-15, Hasan 3-16) by nine wickets