DHAKA - A month ago, any suggestion that Shahid Afridi could emulate the achievements of Pakistan's most famous sporting hero Imran Khan would have sounded ridiculous. But within minutes of Afridi leading his men to the World Cup semi-final with a thumping 10-wicket win over West Indies, on Wednesday countless discussions on the internet debated the very same subject.
The team had lost three of their most talented players -- Salman Butt and pace duo Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir -- to corruption bans and two weeks before the tournament did not even know who their captain would be. Now, they are just two matches away from walking off with the top prize. To reach the final, they will have to either beat India in front of 33,000 roaring fans in Mohali on March 30.
Pulling off the feat would have sounded like a pipedream to most Pakistanis when they were asked to weigh up their team's fortunes in the run-up to the Feb. 19-April 2 event. But in just seven matches, Afridi has instilled a 'can do' attitude into his men while leading from the front -- raising huge expectations back home that the 31-year-old can soothe the wounds of a troubled nation by winning a second World Cup. Such is the celebratory mood in the Pakistan, that residents were even spared the daily power cuts that authorities impose to conserve energy.
"The hopes in the country is pretty high and I got to know there was no load-shedding (power failure) today and that's make me more happier as the entire country watched the game and they prayed for us," coach Waqar Younis said after the win over West Indies. Afridi added: "Before coming here I told my friends and the nation that definitely with this team I want to play a semi-final. "Now that we're there, there will be more expectations from us. The only thing you can do more is work hard," said Afridi, who had collected a total of just seven wickets in his last three World Cups.
For most of his 15-year career, the 31-year-old was more than happy to live up to his 'Boom Boom Afridi' nickname by producing fireworks with his bat -- as illustrated when he belted the fastest ever ODI century off 37 balls in 1996.
However, during his stint in the 2011 Cup, it is Afridi's leg-spin bowling that has caught fire as he has become Pakistan's most successful bowler at a single World Cup with 21 wickets, overtaking Imran's tally of 17 and Wasim Akram's haul of 18.
With a possible two more matches to go, he now has Glenn McGrath's overall record of 26 in his sights and could achieve that mark since it appears the Pakistan team is peaking at the right time. Until Wednesday, the main area of concern was Pakistan's opening partnership as it flopped in all six of their group matches -- averaging just 14.8 runs. Kamran Akmal, promoted up the order, and Mohammad Hafeez finally proved their worth to the side as they knocked off the West Indies total in double quick time to carry Pakistan into the semi-finals with almost 30 overs to spare. "The problem we had been facing is with the bat and it was really pleasing for me and the team to see that we finished the game in total command and that's makes a huge difference," said Waqar.
"I am more than happy as we have struggled with the openers. It was very pleasing to see them scoring runs and hopefully it help us in the future. "Hafeez played an outstanding knock with the bat and he bowled superbly so I think full credit goes to him because he looks like a man in form." With the bowling and batting coming together for Pakistan at just the right moment, the debate about whether Afridi or Imran was the better captain is likely to continue. But should Afridi land the big prize in Mumbai on April 2, he will have then played a winning part in capturing the two big ICC one-day trophies. Afridi was the man-of-the-match when Pakistan captured the world Twenty20 title in 2009 a competition which did not exist in Imran's time.