KARACHI: A deafening silence has filled the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka. A little over 25,000 hearts beat with excitement and anticipation, but no other sound can be heard. The time is a little over nine-thirty at night. It is the second of March in the year 2014. Shahid Khan Afridi is batting in the middle.
Pakistan needs nine runs from the last four deliveries to win this already epic Asia Cup game against arch-rivals India. It has been 18 years and well over 300 one day-international cricket matches, but everyone still wants to watch Afridi bat.
Ravichandran Ashwin has the ball in hand. Afridi steps back and surveys the field, eyeing the leg-side area purposefully and resolutely. He makes up his mind. Ashwin runs in and bowls, Afridi makes room on the off-side and goes hard. The ball sails high, suspended in mid-air for a split-second, before going over the fence. It is a six!
The crowd erupt. Audiences from Karachi to Khyber draw a heavy breath. Ashwin has his head in his hands. Pakistan still needs three runs from three deliveries, but already, Afridi has exceeded expectations. Anybody who knows a little about cricket will tell you the six was a wild slog.
You see, Shahid Afridi has always been this dynamic game-changer. He wears his heart on his sleeve and carries the crowd in the palm of his glove. In his very first innings for the country, he smashed a record-breaking thirty-seven ball century. All that he has ever wanted from cricket is this incredible high. He desperately wants to win on a high note.
Compared to other sports, cricket is ruthless in terms of happy endings. Batsmen are almost always dismissed. Only a few lucky ones get to hit the winning runs for their team. Many a legend have ended game-changing innings in tears and sobs. The brutality of the sport leaves little room for fairy tales.
Afridi does not acknowledge the importance of the previous shot. He is focused on only one thing. He wants to win it in style. Ashwin gets ready to bowl again. The crowd urge the bowler and fielding captain to get on with it, everyone in the stadium knows what is coming next. The ball pitches outside leg, Afridi dispatches it high into the night sky. It is a leading edge, but the power generated by the batsman clears the ropes. Afridi has won it for Pakistan!
The match would eventually go down as one of the most memorable victory for the green shirts against the men in blue since the two started competing in cricket. A last over brace by one of the most talented and loved, yet inconsistent and conflicted, player from the world of cricket would fuel cross-border banter for months.
Afridi is certainly not the greatest player to ever step foot on a cricket ground. However, he may well be one of the most misunderstood. He would have known that people were expecting him to fail. Few could foresee how this irresponsibly aggressive batsman would fare against the world champions, that too in a pressure situation.
But then, few people could have predicted that this bowling all-rounder from the streets of Karachi would go on to play for Pakistan for around two decades. Pakistan has always been a team of fiery fast bowlers, specialist spinners and proper batsmen. How could this boy smash records or win the country a world cup? He did both.
Ever since Afridi walked on the field against Kenya in 1996, he is used to being written-off. His career has been based on his ability to hit the ball out of the park, but equally so on his uncanny knack of picking up the right wickets at the right time. He can field better than most in the Pakistani team still today. Yet, he is always underestimated.
In a new book which aims to talk about his cricketing career and the highs and lows of being in the media spotlight for twenty years, Shahid Afridi teams up with Wajahat Saeed Khan and lays bare the things he has kept to himself while representing the country.
Game Changer was published by Harper Collins Publishers in Pakistan on April 30, 2019. It was released in India a bit earlier. The book comes with a free, autographed poster of the superstar neatly tucked on the inside, and is only 219 pages in length, making for a comfortable read on a lazy, summer afternoon.
Shahid Khan Afridi is a former Pakistan cricket team captain who holds the record for hitting the most number of sixes in One-Day Internationals. Wajahat Saeed Khan is an Emmy-award nominated journalist who has reported from fifteen countries, covering conflict, diplomacy, politics and media for digital, cable and other networks.
The Express Tribune spoke to Khan about the new book, cricket, politics and the controversies surrounding the former cricketer. Parts of the conversation with the author have been reproduced below for interested readers, and a short review of the book follows the interview.
In conversation with Wajahat Saeed Khan
Pakistan has seen a lot of game changers in the cricket team over the years. Do you think we will ever see another Shahid Afridi?
No, I do not think Pakistan, or cricket for that matter, will ever see another Shahid Afridi. He is too volatile, too talented. Afridi is too complicated and complex.
There is too much going on. The chemistry, biology and physics have come together in a way which is – not quite the perfect storm, because that would mean a whole lot more wins, better averages – but what we do have with us is the imperfect hero.
That is what he clearly is to millions of Pakistanis, and non-Pakistanis, for that matter.
The arguments made in the book to change domestic cricket structure seem very well composed. Do you think Lala has a future as a cricket administrator?
No. Clearly, Lala is ambitious, he says as much. I do not think there is anything wrong with ambition and competition. In fact, he is quite competitive and switched on.
Afridi is also self-aware and quite practical in his political analysis. If you read Game Changer, you will notice that he is quite balanced. And he has not sat on the fence, like a lot of stars, cricketers and actors etc.
However, I think he has pretty much made it clear in the book that he does not have the gumption to coach. He is not that guy. He says he does not have the tolerance for coaching, and although he has not outright rejected a PCB position, I do not think Lala works well under constrained authority.
Afridi does not respond well to authority, and that is what the PCB is. It is a bunch of fat cats in bad suits, and I do not think Lala fits into that regime.
Nobody is going to say no to the PCB if the job is right and the opportunity is right, I think he is smart enough for that. As his biographer, I do not think he is cut out for the job, and I do not think he is making that play either.
Lala dedicates a lot of pages in the book to advocating for a more peaceful relationship between Pakistan and India. Can you elaborate on the role he can play in a personal capacity to effect change in this regard?
Afridi is unequivocally clear that ties between India and Pakistan must improve. He almost follows the Imran Khan you-take-one-step-and-we-will-take-two school of thought.
However, unlike a lot of other people, especially in India, and some in Pakistan, who think that neither country should engage in cricket because cricket might give an economic advantage to the other party, he follows the other way. Afridi thinks cricket is a gateway to the normalisation of ties between Pakistan and India.
With cricket, he explains how with home and away series, not just away series in India but he wants to invite the Indians over to Pakistan as well, the normalisation will continue.
Afridi believes that with cricket follows trade, commercial opportunity, improved visa regimes, sports, inter-college and inter-school levels of interaction, and well, fun. He is that believer.
What sort of a role can he play? I have a feeling that Afridi could be a great ambassador for getting cricketing ties revived. He has not formalised a role, I do not think he has thought it through, but I think Afridi will be one hell of an ambassador, especially after this book, in pushing for cricket diplomacy.
In the book, a sizeable chunk towards the end is dedicated to lengthy messages on local politics. Life stories of sportsmen tend to avoid this. Why did you guys decide to put these in the book?
As far as politics is concerned, this is a very political book. One push-back that we are getting from certain sensitive quarters is that what does does a cricketer have to do with politics? Why is Shahid Afridi weighing in on politics?
Why does anybody weigh in on politics? People way in on politics because they are concerned citizens, because they are concerned about this country we live in. He is a concerned citizen, he has a political opinion, and he is trying to weigh in.
As a reporter who has been working in this country, covering politics, security, the economy, and what not, even culture, I think Afridi takes a stand. A lot of people do not.
A lot of stars of his value, of his stature, they sit on the fence. They do not jump off it. Because when you jump off it, you jump into the muck, and so a lot stars, men and women, they sit on the fence, they stay pretty sitting on that fence, and they stay clean.
I think he has been gutsy enough to jump off the fence, and I think the best part is that he has not take a partisan position, he has got healthy skepticism for everyone. He likes Imran, and he does not like Imran. On certain things, he likes Nawaz, and he does not like Nawaz. In certain things, he likes the army and he thinks the army can do more.
I do not think there ever has been a time when a megastar like Afridi in this country, even in South Asia, has taken hard stances about the economy, about poor people, about the health crisis.
He even takes a stand on his own girls, which is controversial, saying that he is not going to allow them to play outdoor sports, but at the same time, he pushes for women’s education, he pushes for Benazir Bhutto’s track of women development and study.
In fact, Afridi finances many girls for education. So he is like all of us, and any of us, he is a mix and match kind of guy. He is full of certain contradictions, like all of us are, but at least he has the gumption to put it on paper, which most of us don’t.
How would you describe your personal experience of ghost-writing a memoir of possibly the most popular man in Pakistan?
It had to be done. Not enough people read. So the one challenge for me was, how to get people reading?
I wanted to create a project which makes people go back to the books, and back to the bookshops and reading. So that is why I chose Afridi. And of course, he is so big, and he needed help.
I usually am not the back seat kind of guy, but I had to take the back seat on this one. We needed to have a look inside our systems, our feelings, our structures, our hearts. To see how even our heroes fall, and societies who do not study them do not study much.
This book is like a quick breeze designed for cricket fans, non-cricket fans, bathroom readers, travel readers, it is designed for people to get their Afridi kick and get out. It is designed for different people with different tastes.
What is your favourite Lala moment from his cricketing days?
I do not know. I have not thought it through. I am pretty dispassionate about my subjects. I am not a big enough cricket fan, or even a big enough Afridi fan, to have moments embedded in my head about that time, about that place.
But yeah, I mean when he won that awesome championship for us in 2009 in London, I remember exactly where I was and I remember that as an awesome moment. It was fantastic and a lot of that was Lala.
Can you tell us a little bit about your future projects?
I am doing everything. I try to travel a lot, that is always on the menu. I try to do something new all the time. I am going to grad school, I just got a fellowship, going to be heading to New York City, my favorite city in the world.
Of course, the second, third, fourth book is always there. I am going to be writing more, and I do less and less TV, which is not as exciting, because TV is dead. But long live digital. This stuff is awesome, I am stepping into digital more.
Do you have any message for Shahid Afridi fans reading The Express Tribune?
There is a lot Shahid and I have gone through, personally and professionally, while writing this book.
Of course there are mistakes, we did not get enough editorial support from our publishers. I did not have the budgets for a research team,
I obviously wrote this thing on my own, and in that process made some minor errors which are going to be corrected in the second edition.
The book is divided into thirty-eight short chapters and includes a glowing foreword by former Pakistan cricket captain Wasim Akram. In addition, the praise heaped on the man affectionately known as Lala in his own country by greats of the game like Vivian Richards, Sachin Tendulkar and Kevin Pietersen is also quoted. The account zeroes in on how Afridi had the dream debut, but a disappointing retirement.
Although the authors contend that the book is not a traditional biography that covers the early years of Lala, his rise to fame, and his highs and lows in big games, yet this is exactly what the book ultimately ends up being. The assertion that the volume covers the personal history of a sports star from a ‘war on terror’ zone is simply a matter of co-incidence, explained in short, matter-of-fact terms.
Afridi does tackle controversy in the book, especially the things one would expect him to address, and even a lot of other stuff that has landed him in trouble since the release of the work. For example, his feuds with former captains Javed Miandad and Waqar Younis make up a size-able chunk, as do his flirtations with politics. His controversial remarks about not letting his daughters play outdoor sports have attracted media ire as well.
Perhaps the most sensational revelations to come out of the biography are two admissions made by Afridi regarding his age and his role in the spot-fixing scandal of 2010. In the book, Afridi admits that he was born in 1975, and that the age on his birth certificates was incorrect. During promotions for the book, the all rounder has said the year of his birth is actually 1977.
Regarding the spot-fixing scandal, Afridi notes that he was aware of former cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir being involved in suspicious activities through a family contact in London.
According to Lala, this family contact had got hold of a broken phone used by Mazhar Majeed, the man who facilitated spot-fixing bets on behalf of the three convicted men. The contact passed Afridi some text message conversations between Majeed and Butt. Afridi passed these to the team management, which did not take action.
Another interesting account detailed in the book deals with Afridi and his relationship with former Pakistan team captain and coach Waqar Younis. Afridi reveals that he has had a tiff with Waqar since the 2003 World Cup, when Waqar clashed with Wasim Akram for captaincy.
The bad faith between the two continued when Waqar was made coach of the team during the time Afridi was captain, and led to many locker room disagreements. However, Afridi maintains that he and Waqar have settled previous differences and now get on well with each other.
A few sporadic encounters with Javed Miandad, in which Miandad comes across as a little egoistic, are also presented in the book. Afridi admits that he never really approved of Miandad since an incident early on in his career. The story of that happening, where Miandad refuses to let Afridi practice before a big game, is a fascinating read.
Some chapters of the book deal with political and social issues. Of all these, the most compelling seem to be the views Lala holds on administrative reform to the cricket structure in Pakistan. His advocacy for peace with India, and a deep sense of goodwill for his fellow countrymen, underscores most of his work.
According to authors, the book was compiled to reflect the batting style of the star all-rounder. Afridi aims to set the record straight once and for all. The writing is instinctive, it is candid and unconventional. The book will undoubtedly be a best-seller across the cricket-mad subcontinent. Wajahat Saaed Khan, who ghost-wrote the book, has presented the story of Boom Boom Afridi as honestly as he possibly could. Although riddled with a few factual errors, one can perhaps forgive the authors since they were operating on a limited budget without a proper editorial or research team.
Several years after Lala hit those magical sixes in Dhaka, the crowds still continue to chant his name. He now leads a non-profit organisation that does wonderful work for the under-privileged. He is married, with a happy family. The seasons will pass, the hairs will grey and the kids will grow. But “Shahid Afridi, you beauty” will forever be struck in the collective memory of a nation.