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Certainly Afridi deserved a better farewell for his contribution to Pakistan Cricket. Is there something that could be learned – balancing between being a player and a captain, building skills rather than relying on individual brilliance, and even more importantly, how to handle our legends and heroes?

Photo Source: The Express Tribune

D. Suba Chandran
Professor
International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP)
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore

Shahid Afridi announced his retirement in February 2017. Though a section ridiculed his announcement, for having retired numerous times, it was not a decision that he made, but forced upon him. It is unfortunate that a player with more than 11000 runs and 540 wickets at the international levels had to leave in such a fashion. He was (and still) a cricket hero and a legend. One of the true allrounders that Pakistan has produced. 

A comparison with another legend – Imran Khan would reveal, Afridi’s importance in Pakistan’s cricket. Afridi almost has as many international wickets as Imran Khan had and certainly more runs than the latter’s 7500 plus. 

Certainly Afridi deserved a better farewell for his contribution to Pakistan Cricket. Is there something that could be learned – balancing between being a player and a captain, building skills rather than relying on individual brilliance, and even more importantly, how to handle our legends and heroes?

The Beginning of an End: Pakistan and the World T-20 Campaign in 2016
 
Sidelining of Shahid Afridi within Pakistan’s Cricket, ultimately leading to his retirement started with Pakistan’s abysmal performance in World T20 campaign in 2016. A quick note on this campaign is essential to underline the point – perhaps the PCB was not fair to Afridi. Pakistan lost to Australia, India and New Zealand in the group and the sole win came against Bangladesh. He did not score many runs as a batsman, but as a bowler, he was economic and did well. In the entire tournament, only one Pakistani player won the man of the match and it was Shahid Afridi. 

Unfortunately, after the T20 World Cup, he was shown the door. It was obvious; at that time, there was another lopsided match being played through the media by the so called expert commentators, former greats and perhaps by every TDH. Afridi was criticised as an unfit captain, bad bowler, ineffective batsman etc. Had he won the T20 cup, or even few matches taking the team into semi-finals, there would have been no criticisms. Unfortunately, the PCB was looking for a villain, and so did the larger nation. Afridi got guillotined.

He was not selected for the subsequent series that Pakistan played in England and later in Dubai against the West Indies. And of course, the Pakistani team fared well in the T20 matches in England and Dubai. It won the only T20 match against England in September 2016 and all three matches against the West Indies in Dubai. Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif who got suspended due to their involvement in corrupt practices in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) played a role in the above wins as opening batsmen.

Pakistan Cricket: Was Afridi the problem? 
 
Thanks to the above wins during mid 2016, especially in Dubai against the West Indies, Afridi got automatically forgotten. But, is Pakistan’s Cricket any better without him? An analysis of recent matches that Pakistan has played will tell a different story. It had lost both the test matches it played against New Zealand late 2016, and all three test matches and four (out of the five) one day matches against Australia during 2016-17.

Was Afridi the problem facing Pakistan’s cricket that called for not selecting him? As a captain, Afridi’s options are limited; though he could not win as many matches as he did single handedly as a batsman, his bowling was certainly good. His problem was elsewhere. He was not Australia’s Smith, who has a bunch of skilled players. He was not New Zealand’s Kane Williamson, whose predecessor built an aggressive and talented team from scratch and handed over on a platter. He was not India’s Dhoni, who was better understood and given the space by his country and the Board to build his own team, despite strings of failures. 

In a different context and in a different continent, few months ago, Steve Smith while preparing his team for the match against Mc Cullum’s New Zealand insisted on Australia’s skills as a cricketing team. He had an extremely valid point, especially for the South Asian teams, that eulogises individual talents and sporting prodigies. Himself being one, Afridi had seen Sachin Tendulkar and Kumara Sangakkara. While the geniuses are necessary for the success of any team, skills are imperative for any success. 

Those who criticised him – both inside and outside the PCB did not understand that the problem lies elsewhere. Individual brilliance do win matches, but the team need collective skills, when the former fails or do not perform.

Consider the post Imran Khan era of Pakistan Cricket during which Afridi became the Boom Boom. The team had Aamir Sohail, Saeed Anwar, Mohammad Yousaf, Ijaz Malik and Inzamam ul Haq in the batting lineup leading the leather hunt effortlessly, while Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoib Akhtar terrorizing the batsmen with their super speed yorkers and bouncers. Also during those days, Pakistan had some of the greatest wicket keeper batsmen that the country had ever produced. Player to player, the team that he led in the T20 Cup and the earlier Asia Cup in 2016 was no match – to the former teams that Pakistan has produced. 

Certainly Afridi was not the problem of Pakistan’s cricket, when he was omitted from the playing eleven. But he took the blame and became the villain, because, the PCB and many outside were looking for a scapegoat.

Instead the PCB should have looked at the basic infrastructure of the game from the grassroots level to the highest. Where are the skills that Smith is talking about? A captain is only as good as his team. Afridi did not have a David Warner to open or a Virat Kohli to come at one down. He did not have a AB Devillers or Morgan, who can give the middle order boost. And he have a MSD who can be the wicker keeper and finishes the game with big blows at the death overs. In the bowling area, despite occasional brilliance by few players, Pakistan could never find a replacement for Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoib Akhter who won the games for Pakistan with their pace, accuracy and swing.

All he had was players like Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal, who did have talent but a bigger attitude. And worse, like Sharjeel, who had connections with the Cricket Underworld. Why blame only Afridi for the team’s defeats? As a captain, he is only as good as the rest of his players.

So, was Afridi blameless?
Not true. Afridi had his own limitations. Consistency in batting (certainly not bowling) was his primary problem. As a batsman, he could never adjust to the game nor understand what the situation demands. He was just a Boom Boom. Never cared about the situation nor about the bowlers. But to be fair to him, it was the same attitude that won games for Pakistan and made them become an “unpredictable” team.

Afridi could have been a better captain; even he commented on the same. He was neither a  Brendon McCullum nor MS Dhoni, who could build a team and groom young players. During the last three decades, only Imran Khan could be the bond and mentor that the other players needed; other captains from Akram to Inzamam were extremely lucky to have players who could change the course of the games with their individual performances, like Afridi, Anwar, Sohail, Younis and Akhter.

He was a free spirit while batting. But he took his bowling seriously and the record would speak for itself. He could always bowl his full quota of overs whether in T20 and one day matches, and be the useful “sixth/seventh” bowling all rounder that Dhoni used to insist. He may not have been great finisher, but he could give any captain that useful cameo of twenty to thirty runs in few balls. Whatever comes more than that should be considered as a bonus. 

Are there lessons to be learned?
 
Certainly. 

With a bowling economy of 4.6 and 395 wickets in One day matches, and 97 wickets with an economy of 6.6 in T20s, in 2016 he was nowhere closer to hang the boots. Of course age may not be on his side; but, he is not older than Misbah ul Haq and Younis Khan. Now in 36, perhaps Afridi could have easily played for two more years, when he was overlooked.

The first lesson for any Cricket Board is how to treat its big players, especially those who have the potential to win matches single handed. If the idea is to groom young players, Afridi could have been told in advance about the larger process. Looking into the composition of current Pakistani team, one could not understand who has the capacity to replace Afridi, as a player. Consider his potential: he could bowl his full quota of overs whether in ODI or T20, field well, and come up with some cameo innings while batting, and perhaps win the matches with some explosive hitting. Who comes closer to this in Pakistan’s team today? Shoib Malik? Mohammad Hafeez?

Second, the Board should realize, some are great players, but not captains. Imran Khan was both. Kumara Sangakarra and Sachin Tendular were not. When the respective Boards realised, Tendulkar and Sangakarra were relieved of captaincy which helped their cause, as well as of their teams. Both ended up winning more games for India and Sri Lanka during their post-captaincy era. 

Afridi could have continued as a player and not as a captain. And contributed more to Pakistan Cricket. As a captain, one is burdened with managing the team players (some especially with a bloated ego), politics of the Board, differences with the Coach (especially if he is from abroad), hostile media and an indifferent audience, especially if the team is not playing well. It is not easy to be a captain, especially in an emotional South Asia. Even more in Pakistan. 

The problem here also is the huge expectations and short memory of the Cricket obsessed sub-continent. We may not be worried about our performance in the Olymic and even at the Asian games; in fact we may not even know the names of our captains of other games. We don’t care how many medals we have won collectively as a region in the above international events. But Cricket is our national honour and no captain can puncture it by losing a game. 

Third, the Board should learn how to treat its heroes. Of course, Afridi was not an easy player; many sporting legends have their own eccentricities. The Board and the larger nation have to understand and even appreciate; more importantly, learn to handle them. Though the social media is ridiculing his repeated decisions to retire, it should also understand, why did that happen in the first place? What makes big players to get upset and unhappy?

Not only the Board and relating to only cricket, but also the entire nation should know how to treat its heroes. From being a Scientist to Scholar to Sportsman, it is not easy to being popular in South Asia. We celebrate them one day and dump them on the second day; a nation that prosecutes its heroes or be indifferent is not the one worth dying for and may even be damned to live with mediocrity. 

Fourth, he certainly deserved a farewell series. Some Boards are known for it; look at the emotional farewells for Tendulkar, Sangakarra and Ponting. Remember how Ponting was carried by his fellow players with a guard of honour from South African players and the entire stadium erupting? Remember how the entire Indian nation was glued to the TV, when Tendulkar made that lengthy and emotional farewell speech? Remember the response from his team and that of the audience when Glen McGrath bowled his final ball in the ODIs? Or the final appearance of Brendon Mccullum, who now plays for Lahore Qalandars in Pakistan Super League?

Pakistanis should remember, how Mahela Jayawardene was received when he played his last test match, for it was against them. When he walked to bat for the last time, the entire Pakistani team was there to receive him, with Younis and Misbah welcoming him and the stadium shouting “Ma-he-la”. 

Shahid Afridi’s contribution is no less, when compared to the above legends from India, Sri Lanka Australia and New Zealand. But there is a huge difference in terms of how Afridi was shown the door, when compared to the other great players of his time. 
 
Well Played Hero
 
Afridi, you certainly had few more games to play and perhaps even mentor and support the next captain. We respect your decision to hand the boots. We sincerely wish you had a farewell game and we are sorry, we could not give you one. The availability of your posters in Khan Market in New Delhi and elsewhere in India will tell your story, of how you had fans cutting across national boundaries. 

We will miss you. Well played hero. You are a legend. You are a free spirit. And you are Shahid Afridi.

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