The nature of interpersonal relationships between Indian and Pakistani cricketers has changed over the years because ‘politics has seeped in everywhere,’ was an astute observation made by former Pakistani cricketer Shahid Afridi.
Afridi’s memoir titled Gamechanger laid out how things changed from the days of players from opposite camps being close friends despite being fierce competitors to things getting ‘edgy’.
Afridi speaks about the Indian cricketers of his time almost with awe. He recounts Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid as two Indians who started out alongside him. “1996, the year I debuted, was a happening one…Dada and the Wall arrived: Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid both debuted in Test cricket, with scores of 131 and 96.”
On his record-breaking century in Nairobi in 1996, he says, “Sachin Tendulkar had given his favourite bat to Waqar Younis and asked for a favour…But guess what Waqar did before he took it to Sialkot? He gave it to me, before I went in to bat. So effectively, that first century in Nairobi by Shahid Afridi was made with Sachin Tendulkar’s bat. Go figure.”
Afridi, despite referring to himself in the third person, is so willing to share credit for his 37-ball century with Tendulkar that it points to what he thought of the Indian legend.
He also says, “In the early days of my career, Sachin Tendulkar was the only man (in India) who looked like a proper batsman. Then emerged Dravid, then Ganguly, and then came a flood of new guys… who were polished with time. But Sachin – he was always polished. I think he was born polished. He had his own style, grandeur and class.”
Among bowlers, Afridi writes about Anil Kumble with the greatest respect. On the bilateral series in 1999 when Kumble took a perfect 10, he says, “Kumble was the pick of their bowling attack and took advantage of an inconsistent home umpire in the first Test, but also brilliantly used the pitch – paved courtesy of the Shiv Sena – to crush us for a perfect 10. Kumble wrapped up a series with 21 wickets at an average of 14.85. What a guy! Even though I was the highest scorer for Pakistan in that 2nd Test, I couldn’t fully dominate him in that series.”
Afridi writes that he used to enjoy playing against Gautam Gambhir and Shane Warne the most because of how they reacted to sledging. On Gambhir, he says, “(Gautam Gambhir) and his attitude problem. He, who has no personality. He, who is barely a character in the great scheme of cricket. He, who has no great records, just a lot of attitude. He, who behaves like he’s a cross between Don Bradman and James Bond.”
On the close bonds he shared with Indians earlier, he says, “Off the field, personal connections were allowed. We used to hang out in each other’s rooms. Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh, Ajay Jadeja – I hung out a lot with them. They’re all great guys and we had some great times together. But on the ground, we couldn’t stand the sight of each other.”
“As for the Indian players and our relationships with them, things have evolved…Off the field, were close. Great friends, some of us. But of late, politics has seeped in everywhere,” he observed. Incidentally, Yuvraj and Harbhajan ended up receiving criticism from Indian fans for recently seeking donations for Afridi’s foundation in providing aid during the Covid-19 pandemic in Pakistan. However, both stood by their decisions.
Afridi talks of Virender Sehwag as a ‘killer of pace attacks’ earlier in the book, but says his comments on Twitter are irresponsible. He also says the Indian team donning military caps on the cricket field in 2019 ‘was a bit much’, saying cricketers should be ambassadors and not politicians.
“Look at Virender Sehwag. Look at the negative statements he makes on Twitter about Pakistan. Is that responsible behaviour? Consider his fans all over the world. Consider his fans here, in Pakistan…We are ambassadors. We can’t be partisan, except on the field. In this new, hyper India, Kohli, Sehwag and Co. clearly don’t get that,” he says.
“During Mohammad Azharuddin‘s captaincy, I once had the whole Indian team over for dinner. We even went out and partied together. Now, we just pop into each other’s rooms, if that’s possible at all,” he says on the changed dynamics.
On his rivalry with Irfan Pathan, Afridi says, “In my heyday, the rivalry with Irfan Pathan was instinctive. There can only be one Pathan on the field. In a jungle, there’s one lion. The other one is a lioness, or perhaps, a cub.”
“There were healthy rivalries too. Virat. Yuvi. Bhajji. Zaheer Khan. We evened things out by hanging out and chilling together post-match. But in the last four or five years, as relations between the two countries soured politically, things got very edgy,” he said.
Afridi speaks of his rivalry with Virat Kohli as having come at the wrong time for him, adding that Indian players have always been the best players of spin bowling. “A new rivalry developed over my last years. Virat Kohli versus me. His batting was peaking when my bowling career was culminating,” he writes.
Afridi also mentions MS Dhoni, naming him as the wicketkeeper in his ‘all-time best India Pakistan XI’. He describes Dhoni as a “Hitter, finisher, keeper, soldier.”
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