DUBAI // One question was answered just as another arose at the new cricket ground at The Sevens yesterday. The experimental pink cricket balls, on which the future of Test cricket will likely live or die, did, indeed, make viewing slightly easier. But perhaps only Shahid Afridi is in a position to judge the vital conundrum: do they taste any better?
The Pakistan all-rounder, 30, was the main attraction on the opening day of the Emirates Airline Twenty20, after he was recruited to play alongside the part-timers of the Fly Emirates staff team. Afridi had sought permission from his domestic board to play here this weekend. His request may have been a sheepish one given the strained relations between the board and a variety of senior Pakistan players who were severely punished for recent indiscretions.
Pakistan's most famous player, Afridi, was fined for chewing the ball whilst serving as captain in a one-day international against Australia. The Pakistan Cricket Board are still well aware of his merits, however, as he was named in the top bracket of players who were offered central contracts yesterday. Mohammed Yousuf and Younus Khan, two other recent captains of the national team were not so lucky. Neither feature among those listed for new contracts.
Pakistani cricket politics seemed to be a world away from Afridi's mind as he gave a taster of why he is regarded as the world's most entertaining cricketer in the relaxed environs of Dubai's ground. It only took him three balls of the first match of the tournament, against Surrey, to find his range, as he blasted Chris Schofield, the former England leg-spinner, for a straight four. The fieldsman at long-off only had to move five yards to his right, but the ball was past him before he had even managed to set himself to dive.
The MC was well-prepped, as Boom Shake the Room by Will Smith and John Lee Hooker's Boom Boom immediately started blaring from the speakers beside the boundary. While Afridi was at the wicket, the amateur (celebrity ringer notwithstanding) Emirates side were ahead of the game. He was partnered at the wicket initially by Amjad Javed, a baggage handler-come-opener, and then Khurram Khan, a flight purser-come-all-rounder.
Even if they were nominally the junior partners alongside Afridi, Javed and Khurram looked at ease against Schofield and another ex-England bowler, Gareth Batty. Afridi took to Batty, who was making his first appearance after rejoining Surrey from Worcestershire this winter, smashing him for 16 in five balls. The last time Batty looked this defenceless was probably when he was assailed by Brian Lara the day the West Indies batsman made his world record Test score of 400 in 2004. Batty, a spinner who has played seven Tests and 10 ODIs, might not have been expecting this, in what had the feel of a glorified charity match.
Yet, when Afridi departed following a brisk 35, the Emirates victory charge unravelled, and they eventually fell eight runs short. They fared only slightly better, against another professional English county side, Sussex, second time around, as they lost out by seven runs. This time round their kingpin starred with the ball, as he took three wickets, but the chase faltered when he was run out for eight, leaving the 400 or so spectators on the grass banks disappointed. Afridi looked upset by the decision, and might have been moved to air the famous quote by WG Grace: "These people have come to see me bat, not you umpire."
"Run outs happen - you can't blame anybody," reflected Nigel Fernandes, the Fly Emirates captain. "Having Shahid is obviously a big advantage, but we thought we could still do it. "With five overs to go in both games, I thought we were there. Losing wickets within a short-span of time, and at crucial times, in both games, really cost us." The Pathan was not the only star of the international game on show here. Monty Panesar was making his first appearance in the colours of his new county, Sussex Sharks.
After honing his skills in South Africa this winter, the England spinner looked slick on debut, as he picked up one wicket for 14 in his four overs. "I know some of the guys from my Loughborough [University] days and from England Lions trips, so that has helped and I've been settling in really well," said Panesar. "The ball is coming out nicely and I enjoyed my four overs bowling with the new pink ball."
In the third match of the day, the emerging Cape Cobras side made best use of a testing pitch as they shocked Surrey. The Cobras, the majority of whom are still teenagers, won by 46 runs. email@example.com Today's games: Sussex v Surrey 11am, Cape Cobras v Fly Emirates 3pm, final 7.30pm