Taha Hashim on Shaheen Afridi, the prodigy who could fire Pakistan to World Cup glory.
If you care deeply about Pakistan cricket, you could hardly be blamed for feeling a little glum right now.
Just over a month ago, New Zealand were about to play their first match in the country since 2003. England’s men were due to follow for their first visit since 2005, while for Heather Knight’s side it was to be a historic first tour of the country. For a nation starved of international cricket for much of the last decade, the schedule was momentous.
Fast-forward to today and there’s no on-field action to reflect on, just a “specific and credible security threat” that ended New Zealand’s visit, a hazy ECB statement that offered mixed messages as to why they called off their trip, PCB chair Ramiz Raja describing the feeling of being “used and then binned”, Michael Holding calling out the “Western arrogance” of England’s withdrawal, and the departure of leading administrators.
The main point is still this: a proud cricketing nation, one which had sent its men’s side on two tours of England during the pandemic, was left hurting. Anger, frustration and sadness hit those who cared for it.
In times like these, then, you’ve got to dig deep to keep your spirits up. For Pakistan fans, I’d recommend forgetting matters in the boardroom and looking towards the field. Babar Azam will lead his men out in Dubai to take on India in the T20 World Cup this Sunday and while they’ll begin as underdogs, his side aren’t just capable of winning that opening game – they have it in them to win the whole thing.
India and England possess stronger XIs, but Pakistan possess magic in their ranks too. There’s the suave touch of Babar, carrying the torch of grace in the era of brawn. There’s Mohammad Rizwan, far more than your bog-standard nuggety gloveman; in fact, he’s the leading run-scorer in T20Is this year. And then there’s the quick who’s my one to watch over the next couple of weeks: Shaheen Afridi.
Just 21, the stats point to a kid who could have it all. He already has 161 international wickets* in the bag, celebrated his first Test ten-for this August and took just 25 games to reach a half-century of ODI victims. While there’s been a downturn in his T20I numbers – 12 games this year have brought 10 wickets at 35.40 – he still averages under 30 in every form. White or red? He’s doing more than alright in both.
But the allure of Shaheen isn’t just about the wickets column; it’s about tuning into the run-up, surveying the load-up as he gets ready to launch, and locking in to all the possible outcomes when the ball eventually flies. His beanpole frame makes the bouncer look even more wicked; forget the pitch and he can tap into decades of Pakistani fast-bowling heritage with the toe-crushing yorker. Bang it on a length and he’ll just nip you out.
Don’t trust my judgement? Then listen to Neil Wagner, a guy who knows a thing or too about left-arm quicks, reflecting on a delivery Shaheen bowled to him at Mount Maunganui last December. “It was probably up there with one of the fastest or best yorkers I’ve ever faced,” said Wagner. “Facing him you know there’s something special about him.” That ball resulted in two fractured toes for the New Zealand fast bowler. There’s pain to go with the beauty.
My own interest in wanting to watch Shaheen over the coming days also stems partly from the last time he took part in a major tournament. He was part of Pakistan’s cohort for the 50-over World Cup but was then just the up-and-comer, another left-armer in an armoury which possessed the experienced names of Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz. Additionally, it wasn’t until his side were up against it at the back-end of the group stage that he was able to take centre stage; his 6-35 against Bangladesh at Lord’s, the best-ever World Cup figures by a Pakistan bowler, was sealed after his side had been eliminated. Can he now run the show from the whistle and make this tournament his?
Even then, just the fact that he’s at this World Cup feels like something worth celebrating. There’s never a guarantee when it comes to the quicks; one day you’re all everyone’s talking about, the next you’re out on the scrapheap: maybe it’s injury, maybe it’s form and in Pakistan cricket, it could well be much more (just think of Amir and Asif).
One of Shaheen’s great feats has been to survive the initial hype, thrive and keep himself on the park. A couple of years ago, he was named in a Test squad to tour Australia alongside two other exciting teenagers, Musa Khan and Naseem Shah. Musa remains a one-Test wonder and while there’s plenty still expected of Naseem, he hasn’t played an international since January. Shaheen, on the other hand, has taken more international wickets than anyone else since his debut in April 2018. Jason Holder is the only frontline quick to have played more internationals since Afridi’s debut.
That last line may well cause consternation, raising concerns that Afridi’s body is being asked of too much too soon. For the next few weeks, however, there’ll be little talk of rest. There’s a World Cup to win and Shaheen will have played a key role in the story if Pakistan pull it off.
*Tests, ODIs and T20Is