Shahid Afridi: Pitch perfect

Despite all his ups and downs, Afridi maintains his iron grip on fanfare and stardom.

The cruel thing about stardom is that it doesn’t last for too long. Not unless, you are Shahid Khan Afridi, of course. The 34-year-old wonder boy from Khyber Agency has been in the headlines ever since he set foot on the cricketing pitch in 1996. While sometimes it has been an unbelievably powerful innings that catapulted him into the limelight, at others it was a reckless remark that created waves. But the fact remains that despite being in the field for over 18 years now, the Pathan powerhouse still continues to surprise, agitate, impress and baffle fans and critics alike. 

A man of his word

These days Afridi is back in the news with his latest venture, to set up the Shahid Afridi Foundation (SAF). “I have been working on this project for a long time; I firmly believe that I have to make a contribution for the betterment of the society, especially in education and health,” said the star cricketer who can never be accused of doing anything half-heartedly. “I think I owe this to the country, considering the love, affection and the stardom that I have received from its people.”

Afridi’s sole aim at the moment is to bag a win for the home team in the 2015 World Cup. PHOTO CREDIT: SHAFIQ MALIK

The foundation was officially launched recently in Karachi and Afridi stunned the audience present at the occasion with a passionate impromptu account of the abysmal poverty in his ancestral village and how that helplessness transformed children into easy targets for violence.

“In the cities we live like kings. Trust me when you travel to the villages in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) you realise what hardships are all about,” he said. “The children there have nothing to do, no education, no sport to play; they are extremely gullible and are soft targets for recruiters hunting for suicide bombers.”

A firm believer in the adage ‘charity begins at home’, Afridi has built a 16-bed maternity hospital for the women in Tangi Banda village in KPK. Plans to set up similar facilities in the adjoining areas are also in the pipeline.

Surprisingly, when it comes to the things he loves, especially the foundation, Afridi’s trademark ineloquence suddenly disappears. The man puts his money where his mouth is and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that. He recounts a recent trip to his village where he saw a young boy climbing down the mountain with his mother. As the child got nearer, Afridi saw that he wasn’t wearing slippers and his feet were bleeding. “I almost choked and thought of my young children. The young boy couldn’t even explain why he was barefoot.”

It was the desire to help other struggling villagers like the young boy that motivated him to go ahead with the foundation. ‘Hope-Not Out’ — the tagline f0r the SAF is as fitting of the organisation as it is of the mercurial cricketer himself. For 18 years, the hot-blooded all-rounder has religiously followed his instincts over rationality. While in some instances this has led to outlandishly admirable feats such as his monumental ODI century in his first ever innings in Pakistan colours, at others he found himself in the midst of brazenly bizarre situations such as the ball-biting incident in Perth during the disastrous 2010 tour. “I have been criticised for my instinctive play but I am happy that I have maintained my style,” he admits in the true mannerism of a man who is the master of his own technique. “When it comes off, it looks great. Yet, I also admit that I have looked very silly at times, but that’s how it is.”

The swashbuckling Afridi stole the show with his pulsating innings against India and Bangladesh in the recent Asia Cup that took place earlier this year. His crucial nerve-wracking performance silenced critics once again especially after he drowned the arch rivals with the twin last over sixes. Even the high-pressure atmosphere at Dhaka’s Mirpur stadium became inconsequential, as Afridi had chosen it to be his day. “I did nothing differently [then what I did in] the India game. After Ajmal’s dismissal, I had no choice but to go all out and luckily the two shots carried over the ropes,” he said sporting a broad smile.

The person behind the persona

Boom Boom’s whirlwind approach is not only reflected in his on-field performances but also in his personal life. The cricketer travels far and frequently between Karachi, Dubai and London but rushes home at the earliest to spend time with his daughters, like any other father.

The 16-bed maternity hospital set up by the Shahid Afridi Foundation in his ancestral village is expected to cater to a large number of women in the area. PHOTO COURTESY: SHAHID AFRIDI FOUNDATION

“I can’t stay away from my daughters for long. When I reach home and see them rush towards me, it makes my existence so much more worthwhile,” he shared. “All of a sudden the stress from a long journey or cricket tour disappears altogether.”

Even though Afridi tied the knot 14 years ago, family life and commitments have barely subdued the thrill-seeking teenager within him. He still enjoys tormenting opposing batsmen and bowlers with his surprising moves on the pitch and loves whizzing around in sports cars and on bikes. “I drive fast but I don’t violate traffic rules. Pushing the accelerator and clocking high speeds is at times as thrilling as hitting big sixes.”

And wherever he goes, the camera tends to follow. The days are an endless series of signing autographs and posing in front of flashing cameras. The restless Afridi can be extremely impatient at times, especially with those pleading for pictures.

“Eik tasweer khench li na aap ne, yehi kaafi hai. Shakal thori badal jaye gee aap key ya meri agli tasveer mein.” (One picture should be enough, our faces are not going to change in the next one)

But if the fan is of the opposite sex and has made an impression on the cricketing powerhouse, the camera can click endlessly. “Of course, like most men I admire and respect beauty too,” he candidly admitted.

Afridi hopes to uplift the voiceless and marginalised through his foundation’s charity initiatives. PHOTO COURTESY: SHAHID AFRIDI FOUNDATION

Recently though his comments about the need for female cricketers to stay indoors landed him in hot water. “My comments were taken out of context,” he said, defending his stance. “I have since explained many times that I am a great supporter of our women cricket team. You can ask any player, I have always encouraged them and given [coaching] tips.”

If you spend enough time with the man, you may even get a glimpse of instances when the superstar overshadows the small-town boy. Afridi’s mood swings are a regular occurrence and even the most harmless comments can offend him at times. But the calm reappears almost as quickly as it is lost and he will listen to you with undivided attention the very next moment. But one must always remember that the moment the conversation turns to his batting approach, he will retort with his signature unflinching gusto.

An aerial view of the Sahibzada Fazl ur Rehman Memorial Charity Hospital set up by the Shahid Afridi Foundation in the Tangi Banda village. PHOTO COURTESY: SHAHID AFRIDI FOUNDATION

“Bache apna kaam karo, aur mujhe mera karne do.” (Please concentrate on your work and let me do mine). Hence, it is ironic that it was the advice from bowling coach Mohammed Akram that led to the recent resurgence of Boom Boom’s pyrotechnics with the bat.

He’s got game

Along with kickstarting the foundation, Afridi has also been busy expanding his restaurant chain, Splice in several cities. But for the next eight months, all his energy is focused on conquering the pitch at the 2015 World Cup scheduled to take place in Australia and New Zealand.

“The next few months are of immense importance. This might be a clichéd thing to say but I can’t emphasise enough how much I want to deliver at the world stage.”

The team’s defeat to India in the 2011 edition still haunts Afridi, who was the captain of the team at the time.

“We were on the verge of winning the World Cup,” he said. “The Mohali loss is one of the biggest regrets of my career, but 2015 is another opportunity and we must remain optimistic.”

But remaining optimistic about a side as unpredictable as Pakistan is a tough task. While the team has gelled well under Misbahul Haq in the 50 — overs format, other than a few bilateral series wins, it has failed to deliver in a multination tournament since annexing the Asia Cup trophy two years ago.

Therefore, captaincy for the World Cup is once again a hotly-debated topic. Afridi, who has made himself available for the job, is keen to emphasise that his prime interest is to help win the tournament.

Boom Boom’s erratic techniques have landed him much applause and criticism over the years. PHOTO CREDIT: AFP

“It is indeed an honour to lead the national team, yet it doesn’t mean that I am running after the captain’s arm band,” he elaborated. “Whoever leads the team will have my complete support. Even under Misbah, I gave it my all and will continue to do so.” And if the men in green replicate the heroics of Imran Khan’s cornered tigers, Afridi hints that the global extravaganza might be his swan song.

If that proves to be the case, the similarities between Khan and Afridi are too many to brush aside. Nearly 22 years ago, Khan was vehemently campaigning for his cancer hospital and desperately needed the World Cup victory feather in his cap at the same venue. Today, another Pathan, who has arguably even outdone the great Khan in popularity has a chain of hospitals to build too but desperately wants to claim a home run before he embarks on that journey full-throttle.

Regardless of how the story culminates, Shahid Afridi may the force be with you

The writer is an editorial consultant at The Express Tribune. He tweets @Emmad81

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 13th,  2014.

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Dilshad HAIDER | 6 years ago | Reply I love u for this kindness.
Alam | 6 years ago | Reply

Great job,and almost all big star of the world do charity's,so brilliant work you done,and hope to keep continue in future.

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