Much is expected from Pakistan captain in Test series against Australia starting today, writes Paul Radley.
Afridi may be the man for Pakistan
When Shahid Afridi was in the Emirates in March to inaugurate the new cricket grounds at The Sevens, Dubai, he confessed he does not really like watching Test matches. His audience back then were left in little doubt that the five-day game clearly bores the sport's freest spirit. Four months on - which, admittedly, is the equivalent of a lifetime in Pakistan cricket - he is going to have to start paying attention. At Lord's today, Afridi's four-year exile from the format will come to an end when he leads his country out against Australia.
Coincidentally, he also made his last Test appearance in England, on the fateful 2006 tour, which concluded with the acrimonious forfeited Test at The Oval. Afridi did not even make it as far as that match. He was cut from the side for his contribution of 15 and 17 with the bat, plus a lone wicket, in an innings defeat at Old Trafford. All of a sudden, a player who was deemed too whimsical for the long format by four years' worth of Pakistani cricket administrations is not just back in the side, but has been installed as captain.
His transformation from bete noire to talisman has been brought about by a typically Pakistani shemozzle. The last time they exited the Grace Gates at Lord's, last summer, Pakistan's players carried with them the 2009 World Twenty20 trophy. It seems like an age ago now. Rather than symbolising a side in rude health, that T20 triumph provoked a startling decline, which has since seen them stripped of many of their best players and almost all of their dignity.
In an unedifying 12-month period, four different captains have been tried - Younus Khan, Mohammed Yousuf, Shoaib Malik and now Afridi. Afridi's three immediate predecessors have each either been banned, absolved, retired or made a comeback - or all four - in recent months. Younus, whose hand was on the tiller when they won the World T20, is now earning his money as an overseas player for Surrey a few miles across London from Lord's. His batting is an undoubted loss to Pakistan's green middle-order.
"Younus is a nice guy, a great player, but suddenly went haywire," Wasim Akram, the former captain, said during a recent trip to Dubai. "When things are not going well for you as a captain, you don't run away and hide. You have to stay and sort things out. "On three or four occasions he has just resigned and then left. The players saw that. Leaving is not the option. "The option is to stay and fight it out for your team."
If anyone is going to be able to knit together a lawless dressing room, Afridi has as good a chance as any. The Pashtun all-rounder is the most popular cricketer in Pakistan by some distance, and the side he has at his disposal is made up mostly of young players who grew up idolising him. Pakistan's cricketers have led a nomadic existence of late. Now they are the nominal "home" side in England. A neutral series it may be, but given the large British Asian populations in London and Leeds, where the two Test matches are being played, they will find support in far greater numbers than their opposition.
After they were cheered to victory by their fervent Birmingham-based supporters in two T20 matches at Edgbaston last week, Waqar Younis, the coach, described England as a "home from home" for his side. We have grown so used to the Pakistanis saying that about the UAE in the recent past, it feels a little like they are being unfaithful. Waqar, the former pace bowling great, is hoping this tour will mark a watershed, when his young charges can break with the bleak year.
"It is a tough tour for the youngsters, but also a learning tour for them," he said upon arrival in England. "In many ways, it is like a restart for Pakistan." firstname.lastname@example.org