“Shaheen, kabhi toh has ley tu!” (Laugh sometimes!)” Shaheeen Afridi’s coach Ayaz Akbar Yousafzai would often tell the pacer when he was about 14-15. On Sunday, Shaheen would almost let out a smile, as he stood feet wide apart and air kissed in his signature style after knocking out Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul in the space of 10 balls. If not for Virat Kohli, it might well have been the end of India as that was a Thank you, come again, kind of special spell.
The big jaw, the big forehead, and that centre-parting hair buffed up on top make for easy gifs and jokes but Yousafzai has always focussed on Afridi’s limbs. “The shoulders, hands, and the wrist,” Yousafzai had told The Indian Express. “It’s that flexibility I am talking about.” It’s quite something to watch.
The wrist flexes at the last instant, as if he is doing it in a slow motion demonstration, as if it’s a separate piece of arm, attached as an add-on feature in a toy. The wrists take over in the final moment and give it a quite fierce whip. The wrist snaps and the ball swings.
Rohit Sharma would know now. There was no surprise that the first ball was the full in-swinger, almost on a yorker length. Anyone who has followed even the highlights of his wickets package in the recent Pakistan T20 domestic would know that’s what he does. Knowing is one thing and tackling another altogether. The wrist snap seems to have the batsmen confused about the length, if not the direction itself. And Sharma stumbled to his exit, just about taking the front leg out of the way but unable to put any wood in the path of the leather. In the last couple or so years, Sharma has overhauled his batting to ensure that he doesn’t lose balance by pressing that front foot too far across as he used to do earlier. And to get this Sharma 2.0 with that nipbacker is quite an achievement.
“He was a natural like that. He had almost everything else apart from a smooth run up. Inswing, outswing, hitting the deck … he had it all.”
Then that ball to Rahul. More than the in-swing, it was the seam movement that did in Rahul. “His wrist-snap can allow the ball to swing and seam off the surface,” Yousafazai would say. Rahul also must have known by then what Afridi can do. Yet, he couldn’t do much after thrusting his foot too far across. From there he contorted his body and wrists to try to get the bat in the way but the ball too contorted and squeezed in to hit the bails.
“Watch out for the flexible shoulder, also,” Yousafzai would say. “He can use it a lot more when he wants to hit the deck.” We saw that with the wicket of Kohli in the 19th over. The ball leaped off the back of length and Kohli couldn’t get on top of the bounce with his pull. Rarely do left-arm fast bowlers are effective hit-the-deckers. South Africa’s Brett Shultz was one but he didn’t last long. Usually, the lefties are more slingy, swingy, curlers. Afridi can, if he desires, operate as an effective hit-the-deck er.
Young Afridi had just one problem. With his run-up. “Thak jaata that (get tired) with his run-up. For a tall boy, the strides were important. For any bowler, but for someone tall, it becomes that more crucial – and can upset rhythm if it’s too long or too short a stride. We worked a lot on it,” the coach says.
“Ayaz bhai, I will play for Pakistan” Afridi had stunned the coach as a 15-year old. As the then head coach at Pakistan’s age-group camps held for teenagers, Yousafzai remembers the confidence. ““He said it matter-of-factly. Sometimes, kids say na, I want to play for Pakistan — this wasn’t like that. He wasn’t telling me his wish. He was confident.” He is not only playing for Pakistan but threatening to win games for them on his own and carrying the great romantic tradition of Pakistan’s left-arm swingers.