x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Beginning of the end for Shahid Afridi's career

Long-standing back and hip issues have hampered the bowling of Pakistan's ageing all-rounder.

Back and hip injuries have hampered the all-rounder Shahid Afridi's bowling in recent times. Philip Brown / Reuters
Back and hip injuries have hampered the all-rounder Shahid Afridi's bowling in recent times. Philip Brown / Reuters

The danger in concluding that Shahid Afridi's one-day career is now at an end and that his Twenty20 one may soon be as well is that he is Shahid Afridi.

At last count he had retired thrice and still never left us; twice from Tests and a conditional one from all international cricket in 2011. It is likely I am forgetting another few here, most likely from first-class cricket, or from a particular Twenty20 league.

But in being dropped from the one-day international (ODI) squad for the series against India later this month and retained, narrowly it turns out, in the Twenty20 squad, if the end has not come definitively, its beginning has.

And that, whatever may be anyone's opinion of Afridi and whatever may be the significance of this short tour, is a big deal.

On form, the cut is perfectly reasonable and on form, specifically against India, it makes even more sense.

In this renaissance from 2004, India have been the one side Afridi has not been able to hustle into believing he is a dangerous, wicket-taking leg-spinner. Twenty-two wickets in 29 ODIs against them in that time at 55.63 and conceding 5.53 runs per over, says India still treat him as the flimsy all-rounder everyone else mistook him to be pre-2004.

But Afridi's overall form in 2012 has been very poor, by numbers and by deed.

It cannot be said that he has been unlucky, that he is bowling well but the wickets have not been coming. He is not bowling well at all. Those who should know his physical state have spoken of his long-standing back and hip issues for some time, issues which Afridi has not acknowledged.

They have affected the mechanics of his bowling, particularly the drift he had developed but also the very handy slider that shot in.

It could just be an age thing.

He was not 16 when he hit that first hundred in 1996 and he is not 32 going on 33 now.

If the popular estimate that he is three to four years older is correct, then this last year begins to make sense. And so too does the lumbering around in the field for a few years, though at least he remains an excellent catcher.

There is also his own apparent and growing indifference to the 50-over format, and maybe even for international cricket.

This year he has spoken publicly of stepping away from ODIs (for whatever his public statements on retirements are worth) because he does not see himself around for the 2015 World Cup.

And if any Pakistan player was going to go the way of Chris Gayle and freelance in Twenty20s across the globe, it was going to be Afridi.

With fewer international commitments, how tempting would be one or two final blowout years spent in the premier leagues of India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the Big Bash in Australia and competitions in South Africa and England?

So his exclusion makes sense on just about every level. But it is still a very big deal. Afridi is the biggest name in Pakistan cricket still. Politicians speak out for him.

Until this year he was also their best ODI bowler for the best part of four years. (And that Pakistan have not replaced him with an all-rounder, or indeed picked an all-rounder at all, is implicit acknowledgement that Afridi was a bowler, not an all-rounder.)

He won Pakistan a world title, captained them to the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup (their best performance since 1999) and led them to far more wins than he did losses as captain (which he was, remember, until as recently as last year). The end of all this is a pretty big end.

Here is how big. The selectors thought long and hard about his name and then included him, out of habit, fear, whatever.

It was, it is said, the Test and ODI captain Misbah-ul-Haq who took his name off, reasonably citing his form.

But other unconfirmed reports have also emerged stating the exact opposite, that it was Misbah who wanted him in, for his experience and presence, and the selectors who kept him out. That is how big he is, that nobody wants to take responsibility even for making the right decision.

An unsaid provision still says that Afridi might be included in the ODI squad if he does well in the Twenty20s while in India. It is tempting to imagine that working out well, because it was only a year ago in Sharjah, a wondrous night, where he won Pakistan a game on one leg.

That was the soul of Pakistan cricket right there, of how the game is played, how it is received, how it feels and smells, in a man who loved to say he played every game with the unique freedom that comes from it being his first or last.


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