“The captain has these sparkling yet focused eyes as he comes into bowl. After he gets a wicket he stands there with arms in the air and a roar of accomplishment, just like a lion would after pouncing upon his prey.” The aforementioned words were being said by me for my Oral and Presentation Skills class on metaphors many years ago when I was a freshly enrolled university student. The 2011 Cricket World Cup had just concluded a little over 3 months ago. It wasn’t a surprise I chose the spirited Shahid Afridi as the subject, who was the captain during the tournament and mesmerized with the ball more often than not. He led with confidence and had the whole nation feeling sorry for him as we bowed out of the semis.
The chaotic cycle that is Pakistan cricket has since completed another period of tried and tested players. We have gone through the Hafeezs, the Akmals, the Samis, the Maliks, and as this cycle nears its end, we are often thrown the same old names we started with. And as we approach another global competition, I’m left with no option but to pen down yet another piece on our attitudes going in to this world cup. Brace yourselves, Afridi and non-Afridi supporters.
In a televised recording of the Carlton and United Series 1997, which was a tri-nation ODI series between Pakistan, Australia and the West Indies, a very similar man yet a lot younger one in my descriptive presentation appeared to be the receiving the “Player of the Finals” award. That took me by surprise. Shahid Afridi, the maverick with the bat, magician with the ball, blunt in his views and captaincy outbursts and one fielder I can bet my house on, was in fact receiving the man of the finals? Against the West Indies team, which included the likes of Brian Lara and Courtney Walsh? That too at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 1997? An instant respect for a man most easily brushed off as a waste of cricketer emerged in my heart. The legendary Wasim Akram came to my mind receiving a similar award in the all illustrious 1992 final against the English on this very ground. My heart sunk in for a moment to take all of that in. It was probably a little over a year of him playing International cricket and the kid seemed to be leaving a mark in the record books but not in our memories. The latter thought saddened me. Still does to this very day. This eventually brought me to this, the last frontier of a fallen hero – one, that Pakistan always wants and gets, but never appreciates.
As the 2016 World T20 in India draws nearer we are left with a debate that probably supersedes the chicken or the egg one. Shahid Afridi – the liability or the hero? Right now, I see the nation shelved into two factions and quite wittingly and skillfully bashing each other at every nook and cranny of social media. The more interested the nation becomes whenever we are entering a world tournament, the more we tune up the criticism of a usually already frail team. However, we fail to see the true underlying problem. We create an aura of being unfaithful to the nation, to the team, to its heroes and ultimately to ourselves.
Another bunch of spirited men in green have left the shores to a seemingly unfriendly neighbor with a good amount of pressure on their own safety even before they walk in the field to do their bidding for the trophy. As has been the case previously, we are onto their cases before a ball is bowled. More towards a single player than anyone else, the skipper Shahid Khan Afridi is bearing the brunt of it. Quite fairly so some may say, and I may agree. The recently concluded Asia Cup showed a team that has failed to make its presence felt in most matches it took part in Bangladesh. An unfitting bunch of players in an untested combination were backed to show some fight and they didn’t come off as many had hoped. Especially after the successful conclusion of the first edition of the Pakistan Super League, in which many of these lads barring Khurram Manzoor had made their performances pick themselves for the squad. A depleted showing and a below par performance by the skipper didn’t win the team any supporters either and the way Afridi answered tearfully in the post-match presentation after our loss to Bangladesh, which eventually ended any chance of us playing the final, pretty much summed the spirit in the camp, back home and within him.
A lot of us hate him because maybe he is one of those exes whom we eventually stay in contact with, fall back in love, have our expectations raised only to find out it is not working out. But hey, then again at a certain point he is not the only one responsible for that outcome. I have heard time and time again of people saying we have a stake in the team as we love cricket and the nation as much as everyone else. Yet this nation hasn’t learnt a single bit in all these years. We make heroes, we break them, bit by bit, throw their flesh around and burn their effigies and curse them all we want because isn’t that what a nation does with people they adore? Oh and did I mention that this is the same nation where a long career in the khakis is rewarded with salutes for the rest of their lives and accolades and illustrious drawing rooms with memorabilia while the one who serves in cricket receives backlashes, humiliation and is discarded as many before him eventually to be forgotten forever? Yeah, there isn’t a doubt in my patriotically beating heart that this is quite unfair and not something I will be proud to own as a Pakistani. You say you have a stake in the team, let me highlight your stake for you for a bit. Imagine Noor Jehan singing “meray naghmay tumharay liye hain” for the soldiers at the borders. Have you seen how that binds the nation? How the families of the people involved in the war get much needed hope in an unpredictable outcome. If we believe cricket is the only binding thing that we have left, then why are we being an obstacle to it? It sickens me when people come up with arguments that they are paid hefty amount for this. Well, so does many in the world who do slack off every now and then, maybe because no one is there to curse them at every mistake. I don’t believe even for a moment, that a cricketer is comforted by the thought “Oh I have a six figure salary, I am bound to go out and perform tomorrow because of that.” See how absurd that sounds? I do agree that they are paid a lot, but for how long? And does that cover the sacrifices they put up with for that amount? Does that cover the cost of the insults we throw at them and criticism? Im sure as hell that it only covers for being a professional sportsman in a sport where money does not guarantee that you perform and win. That being said, it is everyone’s right to criticize the national team for their performances, but I believe there is a channel that should be in place, a moral channel, that is more encouraging of performances and not degrading and belittling every below par showing. I have seen far more performances being triggered with an encouraging demeanor – which the nation and the media is lacking at the moment.
This is where Shahid Afridi’s role as a captain becomes essential and key to the binding process. Now people bemoan over his stats over and over again but they fail to see the ones that matter. A very meager average with the bat across all formats, yet a threat whenever and wherever he bats. His drifters and flippers have always been a handful for masterclass batsmen alike. He is the only Pakistani with 43 Man of the Match Awards in which Pakistan has won 42 of them. Incidentally he is also the player that has won 7 Man of the Series Awards in which two of them were global Tournaments. I don’t think we can ever forget his performances in the semifinal and final of the 2009 edition of this very format that he is leading Pakistan into. Man for the big games, the big tournaments, the big moments. A certain pressure always comes along with that tag – where one need not and cannot fail. And this is where we forget how to respond to or treat a National hero who is just as human as you and me.
The two different factions can fight this all they like for an innumerable amount of times, but that isn’t going to bind anything. That is certainly not going to win us the cup and as a person deeply attached to the nation’s cricketing affairs, it won’t certainly bring about youngsters to represent the nation at the highest level if we eventually disregard what they will give to it. The joy, the pride, the times we mimic one of them when we are playing in our alleys, the Shoaib Akhtar airplane celebration, the Afridi salute, the times we cheer when we see a four, and the times we unleash a roar when a wicket is taken – that to me should be the only thing worth fighting for. That to me is what cricket has given to Pakistan for all these years.
Before I sign this off, I’m just going to remind you of our cricketing national heroes in an effort to let us embrace what we have really given them. One is an adamant opposition leader, another is the current coach of the Pakistan Cricket Team, another coaches the Afghanistan team, one of them helps coach bowlers at camps home and abroad and commentates usually in our neighboring nation, and another holds the record for the most runs in a calendar year, usually sits on a famed channel as a cricket analyst sometimes saying more than he should. There are more of them I am sure, but there is one among the team right now as well, and he happens to be leading a dispirited set of players that need our support more than they ever did.
I hope against hope that Shahid Afridi is not one of the many fallen heroes who have to take a disgraced exit from the game and the country they gave so much joy to. Hero or not, there is no doubt we have been the villains for longer than we would like to admit. Being disgraced and belittled by former legends isn’t easy to bear. Being left alone to take all the criticism isn’t fair to him. All of you will get your wishes when he will hang up his boots soon. He is in his final showdown at a world event and there is a lot in life he can do after walking away from this, but in his final frontier, he is there to battle it out – as much for him as much it is for us. The only question is, are you ready to be there for him?