The Hurricane Man

V. GANESAN

When Shahid Afridi sizzles, the opposition challenge often fizzles out. S. DINAKAR writes that Afridi also pays the price for being an entertainer.

PICTURE Shahid Afridi at the wheel of a Formula One mean machine. His would be a ride high on velocity and low on sympathy for his adversaries. And while he would push the limits, he could so easily crash out.

It's no different when this ebullient Pakistani wields the willow. He flirts with danger, walks the tightrope and sends the run-rate zooming with booming blows. Or, given the risks that his methods involve, he can disappear as quickly from the middle. While Afridi can cut across barriers because of his sheer daredevilry, he can send his supporters into bouts of depression — the price an entertainer has to pay.

But when Afridi sizzles, the opposition challenge often fizzles out. For him, a sense of recklessness is a virtue. A force of nature, he certainly is; predictably unpredictable.

Even during those occasions when Pakistan is being swept away — as in the recent Bridgetown Test — he storms into the gushing winds in a strong expression of his personality.

His batting encapsulates the colour, the passion, the romance and the madness of the sub-continent. The man from the daunting Khyber Pass, that still holds several mysteries, is both enigmatic and charismatic. His technique may have holes, however, his hand-eye co-ordination is extraordinary.

The Pakistani all-rounder is also one of the volatile kind. Proof? His altercation with stand-in captain Younis Khan on the issue of opening the innings during the first Test against the Windies in Barbados.

The Pathans from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan are a brave but an emotional lot and Afridi is no different. The all-rounder would only be wise if he reins in his temper without putting a lid on his aggression. Gaze into his eyes and they tell you a story — of chasing dreams and going beyond frontiers. It is an engaging tale of guts and glory, valour and steel, pride and performance. Whether smashing the ball out of the arena, running in to bowl his assorted variety of spin, or sprinting, jumping or diving, Afridi's cricket has a breathless intensity about it. There is a buzz about the Pakistan side when he struts around the park.

His has been a roller-coaster journey though. A lack of consistency on his part and the selectors' inability to comprehend the nature of his game are the reasons for a chequered career. The crux of the matter was that while Afridi would win games for his country, he could not be expected to deliver in every match.

A `confidence' player needs to be backed, which is where the present Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, who knows a thing or two about sports psychology, has donned a significant role in the resurrection of Afridi's career from the beginning of the season.

His talent has never been in question. Picked primarily as a leg-spinner — he remains a bowler at heart — Afridi smashed the quickest century in ODIs (off only 37 balls) at the expense off a shell-shocked Sri Lankan attack in Nairobi, 1996. Here was a young man in a hurry, who set a frenetic pace, and sent the opposition into a state of disarray. He is special. Afridi's 4659 runs in 208 ODIs have arrived at an awesome Strike Rate (SR) of 108.04, the best by any batsman. Virender Sehwag and Adam Gilchrist, with 32.83 and 35.55 average higher than Afridi's 24.52 in the ODIs, but their SRs of 95.41 and 94.98 are lower. Further behind is England's radiant Andrew Flintoff with a SR of 92.95. The Delhi opener, a formidable customer in Test cricket as well, is a more refined stroke-maker than his Pakistani counterpart. And, perhaps, none leaves the bowlers with deeper psychological scars in both forms of the game than Gilchrist. But for brute force, Afridi, whose 207 sixes are the most by any batsman in the ODIs, remains unmatched.

These entertainers are bound together by a common bond — fearlessness. They soar over hurdles, travel beyond numbers, draw in the crowds. And they celebrate the spirit of the game, where the mind is not clouded by self-doubts. When they waltz, the pitch, the bowling and the situation do not seem to matter.

RAJEEV BHATT

And someone like Afridi can lift the side with his exuberance and body language. In India, he proved inspirational to Pakistan with his bold strokeplay and his fastish spin bowling that has an element of surprise about it.

His blistering 34-ball 58 provided Pakistan the time to script a dramatic-series levelling victory in the Bangalore Test. And he himself was in the thick of action, scalping Sachin Tendulkar, V. V. S. Laxman and Sourav Ganguly in a probing post-lunch final-day spell.

The Pakistani got his leg-breaks to fizz off the pitch, used his top-spinner effectively, and relied more on an orthodox off-spinner than a wrong 'un. His changes of pace forced errors from the batsmen. Afridi is settling down as a viable spin option in the Pakistan side, which has had a positive influence on his batting. He is not just a slam-bang ODI specialist whose game lacks depth. Afridi, if the team-management continues to stand by him, can turn into a genuine Test all-rounder: presently he has 1122 runs (3 hundreds) at 35.06 and 32 wickets at 32.09.

In fact, he envisages for himself with the bat, a role similar to that of Gilchrist; walking down the order and taking the attack to the cleaners. Given that the slip cordon will be in place in Tests and the fact that he sometimes plays away from his body or is squared up while coping with the new ball, a shift to No. 6 or 7 appears a logical step if his hundred in Bridgetown is any indication.

In the ODIs, where he also has 171 wickets, he is among the most influential openers, especially on the sub-continental pitches where the early overs are crucial. Though he can, rather crudely, collect runs with heaves through mid-wicket, Afridi can be majestic when he hits through the line, striking the ball in the arc between covers and mid-off, his front foot plonked forward, his left elbow high, his visage reflecting the smile of contempt. He is evolving as a batsman and when the Indian pacemen tested him with short-pitched stuff — he has on occasions got into a tangle against the lifting deliveries — Afridi responded with the hook and the pull. Before passing a final judgment on him, we would have to watch Afridi on quicker pitches against faster bowlers.

When he gets his act together, he is the Hurricane Man whose blitzkriegs can shut out the opposition. Afridi's 45-ball hundred on a pitch of low bounce in the Kanpur ODI was a classic of power and precision. And his first defensive stroke in Kanpur led to his dismissal. Being attacking, perhaps, is a matter of survival for him. But when he survives, the opposition often doesn't.