Mercurial! The term that replaced ‘Cornered Tigers’ to describe the Pakistan team since the turn of the millennium. Unlike in football where the teams have a style of play associated with them, in cricket, it is the set of players in a particular generation that establish the identity for their team at a given period. There are numerous examples across eras when a characteristic became dominant within a team’s setup. West Indies were producing tall fast bowlers aplenty till the 90s. Nine out of eleven players in the South African team were allrounders till the 2000s. India earned a left-arm pacer out of every scratch card in the first decade of the century. For Pakistan, the majority were boom or bust, mercurial as they call it.
There is no genre of controversy in cricket that did not find adequate representation from Pakistan cricket. In this mercurial era they lost a truckload of so-called talented players permanently and prematurely due to issues ranging from the trivial - fitness, discipline, form and illegal action; to the more vulgar - ball & pitch tampering, and crowd mishaps; to the most sinister of all - match-fixing.
Many came and went, loved and forgotten but none came close to the aura of Shahid Afridi. Hitting a hundred off 37 balls in his debut innings, he was a refreshment for people in a country used to expect bowlers as saviours. Possessing a game way ahead of his time, he created a cult following soon after. As the fanaticism around him grew, Afridi became a prisoner of his reputation for the rest of his career. Delivering a breathtaking performance once every few years, Afridi gave his loyalists just enough arsenal to defend him from his critics.
With more than 11,000 runs and 540 wickets in international cricket, Afridi deserves his spot in the allrounder category. Even his selection in 1996 at the age of 16 – though he should be 21 then if we are to believe his year of birth in his autobiography – was to use his leg-spin to replace an injured Mushtaq Ahmed. The definition of an allrounder in cricket has always been debatable. For some experts like Sanjay Manjrekar, anyone who is equipped with bat and ball but can make a place in the side only based on one of them is good enough. A more widely accepted logic to define them is to ensure that their batting average is better than their bowling. Afridi’s effectiveness as an allrounder with the following numbers is as debatable then as the definition.
For the record, Afridi averages 23.9 with the bat and 32.8 with the ball in international cricket. This even when he enjoyed a 14-year run till 2010 playing as an opener in most matches. One could argue that Afridi was predominantly a white-ball player (76% of his international matches were ODIs) but it was only in Test matches where his batting average (36.5) was slightly better than bowling (35.6).
While being more prominent as a bowler in the later stages of his career, he earned his reputation and a devoted following through the bat. With which, he let his team down more often than not. Playing needless shots at important junctures became his trademark. Initially advising him to learn from Virender Sehwag, his critics merely gave up on him after a while, making peace with their expectations. However, his devotees did not let such distractions come in the way of their adulation. Across the border, Salman Khan enjoys a similar blessing. Impatient or just callous, Afridi is among the players with the lowest balls per dismissal record in both formats of white ball-cricket.
For such a lengthy career in ODIs, Afridi’s balls per dismissal record is only better than two others who have no claim to the allrounder status. The more eye-opening figure is that the difference between him and the next worse in ODIs is more than 10 balls.
Maybe it was his downfall with the bat that improved his bowling or a more active role with the ball which made him take his batting casually. The shift in his role started post-2001. Until then, Afridi recorded 24.2 balls per dismissal in an ODI innings on an average. Post-2001, it reduced to 16.8 balls. Till 2001, Afridi bowled an average of 40.9 balls per ODI innings that increased to 51.2 subsequently. Even his bowling average and strike-rate improved.
During the period after 2001, Afridi did show some sporadic spark with the bat. A 45-ball century against India in 2005-06 and three Test hundreds in the same season. Then, he shocked the whole world with two responsible half-centuries in the semi-final and final of the World T20 in 2009. When he hit two ODI centuries, now as a captain, in 2010 Asia Cup, some thought a responsible Afridi is finally here. But, as old habits die hard, Afridi averaged 21.3 in international cricket after this, crossing the 50-run mark only 10 times in 153 innings.
It is fair to say that Afridi’s bowling helped him hang on to his place in the side for as long as 22 years. Even though he has the worst bowling average (34.5) among the Top-10 leading wicket-takers in ODIs and a bowling strike-rate of 22.1 in T20Is, only better than Mohammad Nabi’s 22.7 among the Top-10 wicket-takers.
With adventures like intentionally roughing up the pitch with his spikes, literally taking a bite of the cherry, countless retirements and comebacks, Afridi was the most marketable product for the PCB. Just like in his active days when he focused more on his image, playing most of the knocks for his fans rather than the need of the hour, he still manages to be in the news by stimulating his followers through stirring speeches while a greater venom occupies the world.
Well! Setting his priorities straight was never Afridi’s stronger suit. But, he understands quite well what his disciples expect from their messiah. The critics can always sit back, label him as mercurial and move on from the discussion.