Note: Cross-posted at the Express Tribune.
Whisper it silently, and look around for some wood just for good measure, because it seems that Pakistan may finally have a captain. For the first time since Inzamam departed, the team really has someone in charge. This is clearly Afridi’s team – unlike the shaky Shoaib Malik era and the now-I’m-in-now-I’m-out Younis Khan tenures. (No one really expected Muhammad Yousuf to last more than a few months, did they?)
The importance of a good captain cannot be overstated – unlike other popular team sports like football and basketball, the captain is a pivotal figure in cricket. Often it’s not necessarily the best player in the team, but the best natural leader. See for example the captaincy of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid in India. Do you remember thinking of the Indian team in 2005/2006 as Rahul Dravid’s team? But Dhoni’s team it has most definitely been over the past few years, even though it was under Dravid that India actually achieved several significant away wins and racked up a record breaking run of ODI victories. Similarly, this Pakistan team has de facto belonged to Shahid Afridi since his star turn in Pakistan’s World Cup win (despite the official captaincy of Younis Khan). He brings energy, passion, raw talent, and no small amount of inspirational confidence to a side that seems to have perfected the art of ALMOST winning and then collapsing. It’s a beguiling mix that may just be what Pakistan needed after one of the most demoralizing periods in any cricket team’s history – only the West Indies can provide similar levels of unprofessional conduct, infighting, and power struggles with the board.
As a captain, Afridi seems to be a mixture of Shane Warne and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Just like Warne, he is eternally young, always at the center of attention on the field (indeed demanding it), always threatening to turn a match (and often doing exactly that). He’s also a legspinner with a fast bowler’s mentality, similarly obsessed with his hair, and as a near living legend, a constant source of inspiration for the youngsters in the side. Just like Dhoni, though, he is always communicating with his players, has done a great job of managing prima donnas so far, and is the first to step forward in crisis situations. Although he is yet to play the gritty matchwinning innings that Dhoni has carved his respect out of, Afridi came excruciatingly close against Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup recently and proved beyond all doubt that he is wholly committed to the cause with an extraordinarily heroic innings – no one can ever doubt him on that count again. Both Dhoni and Afridi are also media favorites for their hairstyles, obvious muscles, and big hitting. Despite this, they’ve managed to stay largely controversy free, a minor miracle in itself.
All of these traits shared with Warne and Dhoni fail to define the new Pakistan captain, though – nothing really can. One of the most public figures in the team for well over a decade, Afridi has managed to keep a certain sense of mystery about himself, shrouding his real thoughts with bluster and bravado (assuming he actually thinks in the first place.) A perfect fit for the Pakistani cricket, then – he is at once both unpredictable and lethal seemingly at will.
Even the business world has recognized the value of Shahid Afridi as team captain and Pakistan’s team in England has sported a Boom Boom kit that is suitably some way from being the finished product – Shoaib Akhtar’s shirt read AKHIAR, and there are some very curious dark green patches on the armpits. Boom Boom is a new sporting goods company endorsed by Afridi himself, Abdul Razzaq, Mohammad Aamer, and Fawad Alam – and getting loads of free advertising from the hundreds of Boom Boom banners waved wherever the team plays! Could there be a more visible sign of one person’s influence on the rest of the team?
Of course, this can sour quickly too. It wouldn’t be all that surprising to see a group of players leading a revolt against their popular captain; a series of abject collapses in the Test series wouldn’t be completely out of the blue. The reality is still that Australia is the best team in the world, and that Pakistan is not even in the top 5, especially not in Test cricket. Few if any batsmen have the technique to play in good swinging conditions on even slightly grassy pitches, and the team’s talisman, Afridi, hasn’t played Test cricket in years. Recent success has relied heavily on spin bowling, and Mohammad Aamer is the only truly fit Pakistani bowler – and he’s just 18 (well, officially)! Umar Gul has just returned from injury and has always been a little fragile, while the less said about Shoaib Akhtar the better. I personally supported him and his success long after everyone had nothing but criticism for him, and while I will be happy to be proven wrong if he plays an important role in Pakistani success this summer, I think he’s finished. Pakistani fans are reminded to keep their expectations in check.
In any case, Afridi’s captaincy provides hope to Pakistani fans who will look forward to a team that competes hard, even if it ultimately loses. Compelling viewing this summer as Pakistan are clearly Afridi…are Australia and England afraid?
Image credits: Getty Images via Cricinfo