Why Afridi continues to play
The memes, the posters and the profile display pictures are no more. No longer does he inspire remixes nor are his exploits celebrated in his mother tongue. Barely eighteen months on from being celebrated as the reincarnation of Jinnah, Shahid Afridi is being dragged down from the pedestal he was put upon – it is pertinent to note that he was hoisted onto that pedestal by the same nation who is now determined to bring him down. Afridi’s presence in the national team has divided the spectators with the loudest and the most extremist viewpoints being presented as the two truths. His supporters claim that he is the best thing since the helmet grill, and is never at fault for a loss. His detractors complain about sixteen years of false promises and keeping his betters out of the team using his influence in the dressing room and the media. His retirement is asked for by many – as if that has ever solved anything (and we’ve had plenty of those anyway). Surely, there must be another truth – one that lies somewhere in between. But like any, and every, issue (and non-issue) in Pakistan, the middle-ground-truth seems hard to establish.
The first – and most obvious – mistake that Pakistanis on either side make is to assume that Afridi is a batsman of any repute. Much like the England football team, the discussion about Afridi’s batting consists of undeserved hype, outrageously high expectations and references from the distant past. For pundits employed to sell the match as a product, over-hyping Afridi makes sense. But it is senseless for fans accustomed to his ever-increasing collection of failures to raise their hopes every time he takes guard. He averages under 20 with the bat in ODIs over the last two years – certainly not the record of a messiah. A lot of great – and not that great – sportsmen overestimate their abilities once their bodies begin to creak and their reflexes begin to slow. But the fans have no need to be slaves to the delusions of an ego. It is unreasonable to expect him to succeed with his record and ability being so apparently flawed.
But that doesn’t mean that he should be forced to retire. If we were to consider him purely a bowler, there is a pretty strong case for him being part of the national squad. Perhaps the worst – and the best – thing to happen to Afridi in his career was THAT century in Nairobi. That innings has skewed expectations and perceptions so much so that a pretty decent career with the ball is overlooked.
Over a five-year period from the start of 2007 till the end of last year he took 140 wickets in ODIs – no spinner anywhere in the world had more – at an average under 30 and economy rate of 4.5. By modern standard that is a record of a stalwart. Furthermore, he is the 2nd highest wicket-taker in the short history of T20Internationals. And this is all before considering the “intangibles” he has provided. While he may not be the messiah, he – along with Waqar and Misbah – did resurrect the national team from the depths of Summer 2010. There’s a reason that his interpretation of the Vitruvian Man is now part of Pakistani folklore.
But there’s a caveat to all of this. The numbers given above are mostly down to his record in the five years before 2012. This year he has taken 15 wickets in 16 ODIs at an average above 40, and has had his worst year with the bat since 2006. Despite this he has only missed one of Pakistan’s 17 ODIs.
And therein lies the problem with the Pakistan setup. Pakistan’s inability to rotate has led to a culture where there are untouchables within the playing XI. Our lot complain of bench strength, even when promising young players like Hammad Alam and Fawad Alam are never given an extended run to flourish. It took two years before Raza Hasan was given a look-in: he was part of the squad for the tour of England in 2010, but only made his debut last month. It is this inability to rotate – borne out of short-termism – that has led to Pakistan having to call up tried-and-tested failures again and again. There is a middle ground between calling for Afridi’s head and putting it up on a spike; that is to ask for the XI to be chosen on form. Not really that difficult a concept to grasp.
But is it really the fault of the management? Or are they afraid of reprisals? After all, every series – nay, every match – that Pakistan plays is given overwhelming importance by the public, be it an actual big match (like the World T20) or not (like the summer ODI series against Sri Lanka). There’s a reason Afridi continues to play every match, it’s because a majority of Pakistanis continue to back him even as he struggles for fitness and form.
The writer is a sports nerd, and does not believe that opinions other than his own are valid. He can be found presenting his opinions as fact on his blog.
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