It is an alternative fact that a statistician switches careers to join the circus each time Shahid Afridi scores a century because of the impossibility of it all. It’s a sweet mercy that he hasn’t scored too many—5 in Tests, 6 in ODIs and none in international T20 cricket.
The real reason Afridi loses his wicket.
Many people associate overconfidence and recklessness with Afridi. Each inevitable time he gives his wicket away, someone in the room shouts out an insult encapsulating these sentiments. However, through his own words and by engaging with his technique, there emerges a man unsure of himself and struggling with his identity as a batsman.
Shahid Afridi walks onto the crease with chest-pumping confidence, while simultaneously, displaying the nervous twitch of a recovering addict. His frantic energy perhaps makes sense since he has professed multiple times that he sees himself primarily as a bowler and batting was in fact thrust upon him by the adoring public. I hope he doesn’t resent us too much for it - we couldn’t help ourselves. You see at the time we didn’t have an AB de Villiers bullying bowlers or the embodiments of adrenaline rushes that are T20s. Afridi was a force of nature, and we’d never seen anything like it.
“Shahid Afridi walks onto the crease with chest-pumping confidence, while simultaneously, displaying the nervous twitch of a recovering addict.”
So how should you feel when Afridi-the-batsman does well?
A useful way to understand Afridi’s batting successes, if they can be understood at all, is to rank his innings through the prism of your own emotions. There are a kaleidoscope of reactions that Afridi the batsman has elicited over the years; the following is a run-down of the most iconic Afridi centuries sorted by feels.
It’s 1996, and you’re told that someone made a century in just 37 balls. I’m 7 and I can make two runs in one ball when my cousins bowl to me without a run-up. My father explains that it’s more than two runs in one ball--for several balls.
He tells me he’s Pakistani, a Pathaan no less, and he did it in a country called Kenya in Africa. WOW, that’s really far away. I’m 7, so I think 16 year olds can do anything—they’re so tall. I see his picture on TV, he looks like one of my cousins. I decide that 16 year olds can do anything. I decide Pakistanis can do anything. WOW.
This innings has haunted Afridi throughout the course of his career. Even before he played his tenth game, people were nostalgic of the time Afridi had made the impossible a reality. In a sense, every Afridi innings is an exercise in extreme nostalgia—you’re clinging onto a version of something that wasn’t that extraordinary to begin with. I saw the actual innings several years later, but I felt that I didn’t need to, it had been invoked so many times that the real thing barely mattered.
“Afridi was a force of nature, and we’d never seen anything like it.”
The grainy footage shows an unassuming Afridi in his first innings (second match) hitting the ball with extreme nonchalance. Saeed Anwer is giving him animated advice after every hit, but Afridi is staring out at a distance, not engaging. He’s quietly possessed, unfazed. He’s just hitting the ball, what’s the big deal?
Afridi could never really make it as a Test player. Few expected him to. He didn’t get his Test debut till 1998 against Australia. His second Test match was among one of the greatest Pak-India tests ever played—the 1999 Chennai Test. Eager to prove himself in the more prestigious format of the game, Afridi scored a crucial 141 off 191 balls in the second innings of the match.
Afridi had barely gotten into double figures in his previous Test match and had scored an 11 in the first innings of the match. Pakistan was bowled out for 238 and India followed closely with 254. The match is best remembered for Sachin’s defiant 136 and a finish so exciting that Pakistan prevailed by just 12 runs. However Afridi played a measured innings to give his team a decent total to defend. He never went on to become a staple in Test cricket, but his best in the format came when it mattered the most—at the biggest stage versus India when the eyes of the world were on his team. Amid all the frenzy, Afridi appeared uncharacteristically calm and reliable. This century is unique in that it does not carry the same flamboyance and look-at-me signature of a typical Afridi innings. For a moment there you fooled yourself to believe that Afridi can become a handy Test opener. You allowed your mind to entertain the possibilities of crazy hitting during Test matches. You didn’t feel edgy or panicked. You felt confident.
This is Afridi’s second fastest hundred. Opening the batting against India, he appears to be devoid of context. Afridi saunters in and starts to hit the ball without thinking. Suddenly it’s just you and him, there is nothing before this knock or after it; this moment exists on its own. He’s hitting ball after ball, and just that sight is giving you unadulterated joy.
Something moves in the room. You’re jolted back to reality. You realise that Pakistan is playing India in India. The series is 2-2 right now. This is supposed to be a low scoring match. The target is just 250. The Indian top order had a strike-rate that didn’t go beyond 100. Yet Afridi has carved out his own reality, the same rules don’t apply. Relax your mind, disassociate from your surroundings. Your joy becomes manic. How is he doing that? He exists outside the moment, he transcends the context.
Oh, he’s made 100 already—there were an obscene amount of sixes in there. The commentator tells you it’s the second fastest 100 in ODIs. He’s out the next ball, bowled by Harbjan Singh. 102 runs off 46 balls. You assume it’s over, since he’s walking off. Actions don’t have the same meaning anymore. You’ve handed the steering wheel of reality to Afridi at this point, so your only cues are his actions. The next batsman walks in. Why is everything in slow motion all of a sudden?
There is an unease to the way Afridi shuffles at the crease. He’s fidgety, agitated. No one ever looks at Afridi and thinks this man knows what he’s doing. He sends even his most ardent defenders in a fit of unease. Constant vigilance, Harry. You can never relax.
The ball is up in the air, and your mind is completely blank. You try to access a lifetime’s worth of cricketing knowledge—cannot retrieve. Someone yells “out”, another yells “six”—your mind is in the grips of a full-blown panic attack. An entire existential crisis later, and you still don’t know where the ball will land. It’s a six. You become aware of your surroundings. All the blur solidifies. It is Pakistan’s opening game in the Asia Cup 2010, you don’t know this yet but Pakistan will have a terrible tournament and Afridi will have a great one.
This is Afridi 2.0. He’s reliable now. He won you the T20 World Cup. Relax. We’re four-down, but chasing an attainable 243. Afridi just guided us past 100. We got this.
HOW DID THAT MISS THE STUMPS? You can hear him through the stumps mic, “mujhai lagga bahar niklay ga”. (I thought he would take it away.) Oh, no. Oh, no. He doesn’t know what he’s doing; why did you pin your hopes on the most unreliable man in Pakistan? We’re dead.
That’s gone so high. It’s over! Dafa ho Afridi. Okay no, one run. We need 134 from 24.2. Let’s do this.
That was almost caught. WHO MOVED FROM THEIR SPOT?
Of course, he’s playing responsibly now. Look at those singles and doubles. Finding the gaps for those fours. Love you, Lala, beautiful man. I was a fool to ever doubt you. He went and made himself a 100 from 68 balls. Classic, Lala.
WHAT? Six. But he has cramps. He’s on the ground. It was too good to be true. The human body is inherently frail and defective. We’re all evolutionarily irrelevant. You’re also on the ground. Curled up. Rocking back and forth.
He’s gone. Out for 109. We just need 38 runs from 56 balls. But it’s over, and you are emotionally drained.
Every time Shahid Afridi does well, you get the same feeling as when that friend’s name pops up on your phone. You know, that friend you tolerate for old time’s sake even though you’re super woke now and he’s still making casually misogynistic jokes like it’s the 2000s. That friend who’s just too much drama, and honestly you have a lot on your plate since authoritarianism is on the rise and Pakistan just won the Champion’s Trophy. But that light is blinking on your phone and the unread message is giving you modern-day anxiety. You relent and indulge because yaar hai.
So when Afridi made 101 runs off 42 balls playing for Hampshire in a NatWest T20 Blast county match on August 22, I was filled with a simultaneous dread and itch to delve into the recesses of my mind to try to rationalise why is he is the way he is. I think about it, a retired, almost-40 Afridi scoring like he’s 16 and my weary adult mind thinks, WOW.