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Pakistan relishing ‘the Afridi factor’

THE YORKER LENGTH - For a long time after his debut in 1996, Shahid Afridi lived with the reputation of being a fluke player at best — someone who was in the arena more by the stroke of luck than by talent and performance. But there was another group of experts who believed in his talent from the very first day. Former Australian captain and one of the connoisseurs of the game Riche Benaud declared very early in his career that there should be no Pakistan team without Afridi.

It is an established fact now that Shahid Afridi is an extremely talented cricketer, capable of doing wonders with the bat and the ball alike. Yet he hasn’t been able to bring consistency in his game.

It wasn’t till the mid 2000s when Afridi started to realise his talents and his role in the team became clearer with the passage of time. From the first day, he was a bowler who could bat. However, various captains and managements took him the other way round — a batsman who could bowl a bit. Even when he was treated as a specialist batsman, he was always shuffled up and down the order, with no designated batting number. As former greats like Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saeed Anwar and Inzamam-ul-Haq gradually hit the hay by the end of the last decade, Afridi became the senior pro in the side. He started to realise his role in the team and started to work hard on his game and the results started to come. Afridi became more conscious of his bowling potential and started to work hard on it and since 2007 has become the main bowler for Pakistan.

In the last three to four years, he either emerges as the highest wicket taker for Pakistan in a calendar year or at worst remains in top three or four best bowlers.

He has brought variations to his bowling -- he flights the ball, tempts the batsman to have a go at him and trap him either with a wrong one or a top spinner. He never was a big turner of the ball and yet with sheer control, he can be deadly with the limited turn that he extracts from the surface. He has mastered the art of playing with speed and variations to such an extent that he can put any opposition in trouble.

He is bowling like a man possessed in this World Cup. So far, he is the highest wicket taker of the tournament with 14 wickets in just three games. He took five wickets each against Kenya and Canada and just when people thought that he was only good against the lesser oppositions, he grabbed four wickets against Sri Lanka in an important Group A clash last Saturday. In the same match, Afridi got his 300th ODI wicket becoming only the third Pakistani after the great Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis to reach this landmark. By doing this, he also completed the limited overs all rounders’ treble of 6000 ODI runs, 300 wickets and 100 catches – only the second man after Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya to do so. With all this, does he still remain a fluke player?

Shahid Afridi has become a pivot around which the Pakistan bowling revolves. He is full of energy, always onto the opposition and once he takes a wicket, he gets into the groove and becomes even more difficult for the opposition. One can safely say that there aren’t many batsmen in world cricket today who can hit Afridi at will. Last year, Shahid Afridi took over the captaincy in arguably the most turbulent period of Pakistan cricket. Despite the controversies and limited resources, he was able to lead the team very well. Pakistan lost the ODI series to both England and South Africa 3-2 after getting level 2-2 till the fourth match of both the series. And then cometh January and he managed to lead his side to an ODI series win in New Zealand – something Pakistan did after a long time.

In this World Cup when no one was giving Pakistan much of a chance, Shahid Afridi has led from the front making Pakistan the first team from both groups to qualify for the quarter-finals with three straight wins. Afridi’s good performance with the bat and the ball is instilling loads of confidence into the team especially the youngsters. Pakistan is team now oozing with confidence. There is a sense of vibrancy and that “can do” approach – something that Pakistan team has lacked for years now. Afridi might not be right all the time in his captaincy, but one thing is certain that there won’t be dearth of efforts from him. His new-born Pakistan team looks set to surprise the world once again like 1992 and win the World Cup in the face of all the adversities.