Paul Radley looks at the mercurial Pakistan all-rounder, who will shoulder the hopes of his fanatical country in South Africa.
Afridi is turning the clock back
Upon moving to Dubai last week, Andrew Flintoff's only real gripe was that the Coronation Street episodes shown on UAE television are six months behind the UK. It is one of life's petty frustrations, turning on the box to see something you have already watched before. A bit like 50-over internationals, which seem to have been on a permanent loop for years, full of formulaic story-lines and highly predictable plot twists.
And Flintoff himself has proved there is little new under the sun. The 'world's most exciting all-rounder retires from Test cricket in order to prolong his limited-overs career' line is an old one, too. Or that the burly Lancastrian enjoys a similar renaissance to Shahid Afridi, the thriving Pakistan all-rounder, if his inconsiderate body does allow him back to the international crease. Afridi pursued the same mode of thinking as Flintoff when, in April 2006 and aged only 26, he announced his retirement from the longest format.
He was of perfectly sound fitness. However, the Pathan hero had "fallen in with the wrong crowd" as Mushtaq Mohammed, another former Pakistan captain and leg-spinning all-rounder of great repute, put it at the time. Happily, Afridi's retirement back then was so brief, it was practic-ally a text message. Three years on, and 13 years after he first introduced himself to the game with all the reticence of a fog-horn, he has reached the peak of his powers.
Amid the hullaballoo which accompanies every move he makes on the field, it may have been difficult to discern. But lately Afridi has married together his sublime gifts with a maturity that was always claimed to be beyond him. When Pakistan begin their Champions Trophy tilt against the second-string West Indians at The Wanderers tomorrow, Afridi will line up in Younus Khan's side, as Pakistan's vice-captain.
He goes one better than that in the 20-over format, from which Younus retired after delivering the World Twenty20 crown to his people in June. Shahid Afridi. Captain. It sounds strange, doesn't it? If the captaincy was decided by box-office popularity alone he would, of course, have been the No 1 for years. At a function organised in honour of his World Twenty20 exploits last week, one former chairman of the Pakistan board said: "Afridi, without any shadow of doubt, is Pakistan cricket history's most popular player."
That seems something of a sweeping assertion when considered against the claims of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Javed Miandad or even Inzamam-ul-Haq. But try pleading the case against to his fan club, who are likely to be out in force again when Pakistan visit the UAE for their series against New Zealand next month - so long as he is still playing in the one-day format. Reports from his homeland last week suggested that Afridi might consider giving up if he did not reach the heights this month in South Africa, where he was named the player of the tournament at the 2007 World Twenty20.
Yet the all-rounder, 29, refuted the idea. He is committed to the cause in both forms, and recently turned down an offer to represent Tasmania over the winter because he wants to focus on Pakistan's forthcoming tour of Australia. "Obviously, I want to do well in the Champions Trophy which is like a mini-World Cup with all top teams participating, and will be disappointed if I fail to deliver during the event," he said this week.
"But I have no plans of giving up the game after that. In fact, I am enjoying the game more than ever now." firstname.lastname@example.org