First published in SPIN, September 2006
No-one in world cricket plays quite like Shahid Afridi. Not Flintoff, not Pietersen, not Jayasuriya, not even Gilchrist. His strike-rate is higher than any batsman in Test cricket history; his slightly pigeon-toed walk to the wicket a guarantee of fireworks. All the pundits say it and it’s true: Boom Boom Afridi only knows how to play one way. The first time he batted in international cricket, aged 16, he hit a century off 37 balls, a world record that still stands. The decade since that debut is littered with similar feats.
The Pakistan management haven’t always known what to do with their maverick entertainer over the years. Thought to be uncoachable, Afridi plays his natural game, regardless of match situation or designated role and it took well over two years for the ODI prodigy to be entrusted with a Test call. Even when he was, appearances were sporadic, despite his ODI successes and the love of the Pakistan public. When new coach Bob Woolmer recalled him to the team in January 2005, he had not played a Test for two and a half years.
Woolmer, recognising Afridi’s chaotic potential to turn even a Test in half an hour’s brutal hitting, is happy to back Afridi as the team’s wild card. His faith has been repaid: it was Afridi’s 58 off 34 balls on the fourth day – the second fastest 50 in Test history – that helped turn the last game of the India series at Bangalore in 2005: the next day, he ripped out the India middle-order (Tendulkar, Ganguly, Laxman) to clinch the win and a series draw. Afridi followed that up with 92 off 85 balls against England at Faisalabad in the winter and two consecutive tons against India in January. The ton in Faisalabad – 156 off 128 balls – included 116 runs in boundaries.
In April, having finally established himself as a truested first-choice in both forms of the game, Afridi announced his retirement from Tests, saying he wanted to concentrade on the World Cup. Two weeks later, he changed his mind.
Born in the Khyber Agency – the region of Pakistan nearest Afghanistan – Afridi grew up, and learnt his cricket in, Karachi, though his links with the northern areas remain strong. Still only 26, Afridi’s profile internationally remains low, despite his duel status as Pakistani icon and the world’s quickest-ever batter. Full-length interviews are a rarity for him, despite the fact that he speaks good English and has an extraordinary tale to tell. Afridi broke his silence to speak to SPIN in a revealing interview that covered everything from his philosophy of batting, to the history of bust-ups in the Pakistan dressing-room to – oh yes – his love of guns…
How do you prepare for an innings? What are you thinking about when you walk out to bat?
Before I go out to bat, I’m thinking I’ll play two, three, four overs, just ball to ball, and then I’ll start trying to hit boundaries. But sometimes, that doesn’t happen. I get the right ball early on and I go for it. If it’s in my target range, automatically I go for it. I sometimes laugh at myself… maybe I could say I’m not mentally very strong, not disciplined… [laughs]
Have you had captains and coaches shout at you over getting out irresponsibly?
In the old days, two or three years ago. When I came off, and I was saying bad things to myself about how I’d got out and I was trying to take my pads off and the coach is standing over me going “What the f**k you doing, what kind of shot was that?”
Over the years, we’d always hear that the Pakistan dressing-room was ‘difficult’…
Yeah, it’s always been difficult. A few of the selectors didn’t like me. The main thing in Pakistan is liking and disliking, rather than anything to do with form or talent. After the 2003 World Cup I was out of the squad so I went to South Africa and played domestic cricket there, performed very well and when Bob Woolmer came to Pakistan, he said: “Where’s Afridi – whenever we played against Pakistan, he was the guy we needed to work out.” So Bob told the selectors he needed me. Bob talked to me – I told him the only thing I need is confidence. So he gave me confidence and after that, my performances have been getting better and better.
The 2003 World Cup seemed to be a special low-point in Pakistan’s recent cricket history. What happened there?
Before the tournament, there were four or five guys who said to the chairman that they didn’t want Waqar Younis as captain. So if the senior guys don’t want the captain, what can you expect? I didn’t see any unity in the team. Right from 1996 when I came into the team, the cricket board has changed a lot of times, the captaincy has changed a lot: I’ve played under eight or nine captains; a few of the captains didn’t like me. Because of all the ins and outs, all the liking and disliking, they made the atmosphere shit. But after that, Inzamam and Bob Woolmer have come in and really worked hard with the guys. Now the team combination is very good and Bob and the captain keep the team very united. In the past we missed that. Now, Inzamam is the senior most-guy and we have a lot of juniors. But in the past, everyone was senior: Wasim, Waqar, Moin, Ijaz, Rashid Latif. And it cant work if there’s only big names in the team. So now the team is very united. They’re listening to what the captain says and that makes a big difference.
You’re senior now, too…
Yeah, after Inzamam, I’m the senior-most player, with Mohammad Yousuf. The captain gives us the confidence that we are the four or five guys who he relies on.
Is it fair to say that you didn’t achieve your potential in the early part of your career the way you are doing now?
The diference is that at the start if I didn’t perform in one or two games, then I’d be dropped. So I didn’t get confidence from that. But now I’m playing cricket full of energy and focus. My last two years’ performances are much better than before and I don’t want to go back. The captain and coach have really given me a lot of confidence. They’ve said, “Don’t worry too much if you’re out; dont think too much about it; just go and play your game”. And that’s what our players want. Confidence from the captain and coach.
Are you playing differently now – more straight and less across the line?
No, I’m still playing my own game; across AND straight. But now I know that if I don’t perform, they’ll keep giving me a chance again and again… If you see Pietersen, Sehwag, Jayasuiya… they’re playing their own way. It doesn’t matter if it’s one-days or Tests. And this is the modern way. You don’t play 100 balls and score 40 or 50 runs. The Bradman time is gone. [laughs]
Have you always been an attacking player?
I come from the Northern areas, the Khyber Agency. I’m Pathan: all the Pathans are very aggressive. They’re like the Irish. [laughs] Very aggressive people. It’s in our blood. I like to play positive cricket. I like to be aggressive. It’s what cricket’s all about, you know? I don’t care if I get out. I try and play a positive game.
Can you tell us some more about being a Pathan, about what it means to come from a Pathan background?
My tribe is from the Northern areas. There’s no law there, no governmental law, it’s our own rules. When British books mention our tribe, they say, “Never say anything to these people!” [laughs] It’s very close to Afghanistan. We go back to our village every year. We have a very big family. Six brothers and five sisters – all the brothers live together.
How did you start playing cricket?
In my family, no-one likes sport. In the tribe, in the Khyber agency, no-one’s interested in cricket. They belong to the army or do business. One of my uncles is in the army: he told my elder brother, Tariq, to play cricket because he had talent. He played a lot of first-class cricket but had to give up because of an elbow injury. I was very keen to play cricket; I didn’t like studying. We lived in the same lane in Karachi as [’80s Pakistan batter] Haroon Rashid, so the whole street loved cricket and there were a lot of cricketers there. We played a lot of cricket in the street and I was the youngest guy to play club cricket there – I was 12 or 13 – and the standard was very good. I was the youngest in all the clubs. And the first time Haroon Rashid saw me he said, “You’re a very talented guy, just keep playing cricket”. my father was very strict. He didn’t like cricket. He said: “You’re just spending the whole day standing around in the sun…”
What did he think you should be doing instead?
If I hadn’t been a cricketer I would have loved to join the army. I like a tough life, you know.
Can you shoot a gun?
Yeah. It’s a normal thing for me.
What, for hunting?
No, if I go to Peshawar, I go to a place near the Afghanistan border for firing. I’m using M16s on the shooting range…
Yeah – so? We’re used to it – in my village 12, 13-year-old guys are always walking about with guns.
It’s a protection thing? A respect thing?
Yeah – that’s the culture over there.
If it’s lawless in the northern areas, who’s in charge?
Well, my father, my grandfather, they’re all leaders there, they rule the city there. They make decisions. People come to them . If anyone does something bad, all the elders sit together and decide what to do about it.
Wasn’t there a riot when you played your first big game in Peshawar?
The Afridis are a very big tribe in the northern areas and I was the first Afridi to play first-class cricket. So all the people came to see me and I got out first ball – and all the crowds were saying, “No, that’s strike 1, give him one more chance” and all this. A lot of them didn’t understand cricket, they were just there for the Afridi name. A lot of people were there. About 45,000. It was jam-packed.
Do you feel you’re representing your people as well as Pakistan?
Yeah, I’m representing the tribe as well. Sometimes, it’s very difficult. A lot of people call me from the northern areas, saying, ‘You are the only Pathan guy, we want to see you…’ They give me a lot of advice. Especially if we’re playing in Pakistan. Before I get to the ground, I think I’m going to be out there batting for three or four hours. I get to the ground and the crowd is all making all that noise – “Come on: six six six” – and everything I thought before just disappears!
Are there any bowlers you can’t cart around the park?
With the new ball, McGrath is the best; Harmison is very good too. They are the bowlers you can’t hit easily – you’re forced to survive. I used to open when we went to Australia but last time I said I wanted to go in at No 6. And I faced Mcgrath and Lee and gave them sixes and fours, a lot of boundaries. But in Australia and England you can’t take a chance against the new ball – it isn’t easy.
Who do you most like scoring runs off?
I like Muralitaharan. He’s a very good bowler, a great bowler but I like to hit him. Shane Warne: I love to hit him. Brett Lee. Mcgrath – but Murali and Shane Warne are my favourites.
Can you read them?
[dismissively] Yeah, yeah.
You find them easy?
Not easy. You can’t take chances on every ball. One or two sixes in an over is enough…
What’s the biggest six you’ve ever hit?
I’ve hit a lot of big sixes – but I hit one against Brett Lee that I can’t forget. I was on the front foot and he was bowling 145-148 in Sydney: he had the fielder back at long-off and the ball just flew flat over the ground and over the boundary for six. It just happened automatically. Naturally. After that six, Hayden came to me and said, “I want your bat”.
You’ve got a very individual style of leg-spin bowling. where does that come from?
When I started playing in the streets I was a fast bowler: Imran Khan was the legend at the time and I saw him and copied him. But someone said I was throwing, so I started to copy Abdul Qadir instead… I wasnt a bad spinner at the time. I batted No 9 or No 10.
Do you feel you’re not taken as seriously as a bowler as you might be?
Pakistan didn’t play me in a Test until I’d played 50 or 60 ODIS – and then I got five wickets on my Test debut. If they’d given me a chance in Tests when I started my one-days, it might have been different. But they just put the stamp on me that i was just a one-day player. [stamps table incredibly hard]
You got those three vital wickets against India last year: Tendulkar, Ganguly…
Yeah, and Laxman. That was a crucial performance for me. Some very big wickets for me. The wicket gave me a lot of support, so I enjoyed bowling there. I enjoyed bowling in Australia [in 2004/05] too. Batting is my plus point; but I really want to focus on my bowling. I enjoy my bowling.
You retired for a full fortnight back this April. What was that about?
When the India tour finished, I said I’m not playing anymore: you guys are playing too much cricket, you can’t expect me to perform in both times of cricket. It’s not like a sport now, it’s like a business. So I wanted a rest. And some time to spend with my kids. This is the right age to spend time with your kids – when they get older, they just keep themselves in their rooms!
But then you changed your mind…
I didn’t ask any of my friends about it. I was just sick of playing. I just said I wanted to focus on one-day games until the World Cup: my Test performances had become very good, but my one-dayers weren’t so good, batting-wise: the bowling was okay. But after I said I was retiring, the Board president called me and said they needed me. A lot of people were worried, everyone was calling me. And I was like,”Oh God, what have I done?
Can you tell us something about the way the team apparently takes Islam more seriously now?
I’d love to be come a very good Muslim. I’m trying. But I want to learn my religion and then I will talk to others. I want to become a good Muslim. After my cricket career, it’s my wish to go into the way of Allah and be a good Muslim.
What does that involve? Reading the Qoran every day?
Yeah, we’re reading the Qoran and sitting with religious people and we’re getting a lot of good things with them.
Do you have a religious advisor with the squad?
No: I know things, Inzamam knows things, Mohammad Yousuf… we try to be good Muslims, because we believe that this life will finish but the next life never finishes – so we believe if you do good things here, you will be rewarded…
Why has the team got more religious in the last five or ten years?
It’s not five or ten years, it’s only the last two years. One of our religious leaders in Pakistan worked very hard on us, told us that there’s something apart from cricket. When this life ends, was it all about just hitting fours and sixes? They tried to put good things in our heads, to make us good people, to be all-round people. And that’s the type of situation we’re in now. God has changed our lives now. We’re not drinking or going with girls or clubbing. We’re trying to be good Muslims. So our life has become very simple, very good, very down to earth. If we perform or not, we are satisfied from the inside.
Do you see your younger self as a wilder person, then?
Yeah – with age, you learn more, have more experiences. As you grow older, you learn things about yourself and your life. Now we’re older, life is completely different.
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