Afridi — Losing his drift
The white ball flicked out of the hand like a guided missile that had its target already engraved on it. The seam assumed the perfect leg-spinner’s diagonal (1st slip-mid-on), drifted deceptively towards De-Villiers’s stumps, and whisked the dry surface of the pitch. It seemed as if the ball picked up speed instead of shedding the usual few yards. It ricocheted off the batsman’s inside edge, and finally cannoned into the stumps. Cock-a-hoop with joy bowler let the rest of his team surround him and brandished his head from side to side like a proud rooster who had just claimed his reward. The scene should not have looked that good, for it was a rather perfect reenactment of the celebrations that had transpired just an over ago. But it did. It looked even better than the last one. This was Shahid Afridi in the 2009 World T20 semi-final against South Africa.
That afternoon now seems ages ago. Recently, the all-rounder has looked as if he is just going through his paces, first against the Australians in the UAE, and now against the Indians in the warm up to the World T20. To the casual eye, it may seem like Afridi is just ‘sad’ like Ronaldo. But there is a genuine problem that is affecting his performance.
The 2009 conquering of the Proteas saw Afridi at the peak of his powers. He had been talking about concentrating on his bowling for a long time, but it was only the winter prior to that gargantuan effort at the World T20 that he actually put in the hard yards. He worked with the spin maestro Abdul Qadir, and finally figured out the textbook metric for his bowling. Understanding his own strengths, he perfected the pace of his variations (mainly slowing down his leg spinners to allow flight and gravity to play their parts). He had found his zone and seldom did you see him leave it over the two years that followed.
Afridi had discovered what every spinner, especially a legspinner, yearns for throughout his career— drift.
Drift is what has separated the respectable from the prodigious over the years. You can beat any ordinary batsman with mere sideways turn, but to beat the best you often need that drift to sway your way. After all, it wasn’t Shane Warne’s square turn that beat Mike Gatting in the summer of 93’ (a player of spin of his caliber could have accounted for that), but it was the drift into him, before the pitch of the delivery, that made the ball almost impossible to play.
Given the angled position of the seam in respect to the axis of rotation and the dynamic direction of the ball’s path through a delivery’s flight, drift is a natural component that comes with any form of wrist spin. This is due to what is scientifically termed the Magnus effect (a slightly complex physical concept dealing with spherical rotations in wind tunnels)*.
But what is of course harder to achieve and carry out consistently is sufficient enough drift to make the batsman think twice, and sow that seed of doubt in his mind. This “magnitude” of drift can be linked to two basic things; the spinner’s swivel (pivot) and the amount of work done on the ball at release (rotations, commonly misrepresented as revolutions on the ball during commentary).
Those familiar with the basics of spin will know that it is the pivot off the leading foot, and the quick rotation of the plane of your backside (up to 120° for leggies), along with the rotations imparted by the hand that determines the spin on the ball. The quicker the pivot or shift in momentum, the more spin the bowler is able to generate, and the easier it becomes for him to impart rotations at the time of release. It’s these rapid rotations (off spinners range between 25-35 rps, while leg spinners range between 35-45rps) that allow the ball to dip quickly after attaining maximum height, and drift in before turning in the opposite direction.
Contrary to the more obvious notion that the amount of turn and bounce determine a spinner’s threat (important as they are), nothing beats the elusive effect of a slant against the normal trajectory of the ball that makes the batsman doubt himself. It is that doubt which made Afridi’s chest puff out three summers past in Nottingham, and helped him reap the rewards in the two years that followed. It is that doubt which made him the best bowler in the 2011 World Cup and allowed him to pounce on his prey, while it deliberated between lurching forwards or perching backwards. Sadly though, for Pakistan, in the period after the World Cup (in which he has averaged an abysmal forty-one with the ball in ODIs against non-minnow sides), it is also that very same doubt which eludes his more accomplished adversaries every time Afridi hurls the ball at them.
The back, due to its pronounced swivel during the spinner’s pivot (as explained) is of greatest importance when it comes to creating drift. It is the major reason why Afridi’s potency has seen a downward trend over the last year or so. The all-rounder has been sporting niggles in his back and side for quite some time now (the keener observers might have picked up on it while seeing him do his normal ground fielding). His aerial catching, diving and throwing (all aspects that keep the back in one plane) remain impressive, but the veteran star is often reluctant when he has to bend down to pick up the simpler rolling ball.
Afridi certainly hasn’t helped his cause. By opting to play in almost every single T20 league open to him, he has not only humoured those niggles, but also allowed them to develop into what now looks like a full-fledged hindrance to his bowling.
It will take the bravest of captains to ever risk resting Afridi, not only is he the talisman of the team, but the surfaces in Sri Lanka (especially in Colombo) are ideal for his style of bowling. However, his absence might not be a confirmed death knell for Hafeez’s men. They do have an able replacement in Raza Hassan. But it it will be unfair to shun the kid into the spotlight during the pressure stages. Going into a major tournament with a back problem for a leg-spinner should be an instinctive no! But when that spinner is Afridi, no one really knows which instinct is at play. Maybe it’s time Pakistan’s gun player looks in the mirror and decides if he can still spot the Prince of Nottingham within.
*Those interested in reading up on the physics of drift should consult the late Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket.
A cricket nut since Aqib Javed’s bucket hair style and Wasim bhai’s poetic action took his fancy, the writer, fit only for a slogger is pretending to be a top order bat Down Under and blogs here.
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