Shahid Afridi’s interviews with the media are increasingly evolving into the Frost/Nixon of India-Pakistan relationships. He started of well, telling the Indian media that he and his team were there as ambassadors of their country and lecturing a Pakistani journalist who wanted to know what it was like losing to an enemy country. The only angry words he had were for the media on both sides (Thanks a lot, Shahid). Then, tired of diplomacy, he decided to pander to everyone’s prejudices. A Pakistani news channel was informed that Indians have smaller hearts than Pakistanis. A follow-up interview, with an Indian channel, elicited the response than Pakistanis don’t care as much about their cricketers, as their neighbours across the border.
Since Afridi had been hailed as a genuine ambassador of India-Pakistan, his later, less temperate, comments left a lot of red-faced people spluttering to explain his change of heart. Far too many of them, suffering from battered-wife syndrome, tried to rationalise his comments claiming that in a live, on-air interview, he must have, somehow, been taken out of context. Others unleashed on him their fury, as if they had rested their entire hopes for peace in our time, on a temperamental cricketer.
Here is a proposal: Why don’t we just leave Afridi alone? In saying that, I do not mean that interviewers should stop asking him questions about India; trying to catch a public figure in an embarrassing slip is why they earn such hefty pay cheques. It’s just that the rest of us should not pay too much attention.
Pakistanis have always had a love-hate relationship with Afridi, which is caused by more than just his infuriating batting. He has always mixed irrepressibility and irresponsibility, in equal measure. For every endearing Statue of Liberty pose Afridi strikes after taking a wicket, he also says and does a lot of indefensible things. It was only a couple of years ago that the man, who now captains the team in One-Day Internationals and T20’s, was caught biting a ball during a match against Australia. When an interviewer asked what he was doing with a cricket ball between his teeth, Afridi replied that he was simply smelling it. The bemused questioner followed up by querying if it was even possible to smell with one’s teeth. Afridi’s nonchalant reply: “Sometimes you can.” Just keep that answer in mind the next time you pin all your hopes, for rapprochement with India, on Shahid Khan Afridi.
In an ideal world, every Pakistani who steps foot on foreign soil will represent his country without embarrassing himself. Thanks to decades of propaganda, this ideal is about as likely as a disciplined and responsible Afridi innings. From a distorted and fanciful history of the Indian subcontinent taught to impressionable students, to a media industry that thrives on exaggerating differences with our neighbour, we are bombarded with anti-India sentiments from cradle to grave. This is not even counting a military that justifies its outsized budget by conflating alleged threats from India. Remember that old line about one Pakistani soldier being equal to 10 Indian soldiers (this was in reference to ability on the battlefield, not financial worth)? In such an atmosphere, is it any surprise that a sportsman might be confused about how he is supposed to feel about India?
Shahid Afridi’s comments did not embarrass Pakistan. He only embarrassed himself, something he has done many times before and will not be able to prevent himself from doing so in the future. If Afridi can’t control his inexplicable outbursts maybe he needs a different job. Let’s make him the interior minister.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2011.
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