How Afridi changed Pakistan forever

Afridi made us all believe that Pakistan could defy laws of gravity, physics & cricket to achieve whatever we wanted

M Bilal Lakhani April 07, 2015
The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism

Nothing I’ve done in my life qualifies me to write about cricket with any authority. In fact, when we played cricket in school, I was the kid who got picked last in a team. I believe this puts me on a par with all the other commentators who pass as cricket experts in the country. And so, by the power I vest in myself after 15 years of tuning into Pakistani cricket only when Shahid Afridi comes out to bat (there’s 40 minutes of my life I won’t see again), this article will argue that Afridi has changed the arc of Pakistan’s history — for better and for worse.

Consider this: Pakistanis view their cricketers and the world, through the prism of an artificial binary of ‘boom booms’ and ‘tuk tuks’ today. The ‘boom booms’ capture our imagination on and off the cricket field. The thrill of quick fixes, with larger than life narratives can drive us into a frenzy of excitement (think tsunamis that can deliver a Naya Pakistan, cars that can run on water and tales of underprivileged children rising from Karachi’s slums to end up in Harvard). In sharp contradistinction to our fascination with ‘boom booms’, the ‘tuk tuks’ can barely hold our attention; even if we do recognise their value in our lives (think investing in education, democratic institution-building and building energy infrastructure). This is why one fiery spell of superb bowling by Wahab Riaz can cause 180 million people to climax simultaneously; allowing us to forget four years of colossal mismanagement and the unqualified failure of the Pakistan cricket team at this World Cup.

If you want to understand the impact that Afridi has had on the generation that has grown up watching him, consider this: even Pakistanis who are allergic to sports, like me, will tune in to watch him bat. What hold does Afridi have over us? Explaining one’s fascination with Afridi to someone is like explaining the concept of love to a stranger. You know exactly what you feel every time Afridi walks on to the crease to bat. But you can never really articulate what you’re feeling at that moment in words. It’s the difference between living life in black and white versus living life in colour. Afridi eats 180 million rational minds for breakfast and spits out a dolly of a catch. And yet, if you ask me to name one man who embodies the best and worst of Pakistan’s personality, I would name him. Afridi stands for resilience and hope where none is deserved.

Notice the difference in audience reaction between Pakistan winning a cricket match and losing one. Whenever Pakistan wins a match, 180 million people rush to take credit. Something about the spirit of the Pakistani nation that is inherently unpredictable and awesome (notice the echo with Afridi’s character). On the other hand, when Pakistan loses a match, it’s usually the captain’s fault. In fact, there’s a reason why Pakistan has produced talented bowlers and batsmen but never really nurtured great talent in fielding. That’s because batting and bowling enable cricketers to make a name for themselves in the team. Fielding merely helps the team win more consistently.

Incidentally, the boom-boom-tuk-tuk spectrum has crept into our everyday non-cricketing conversation, too. For example, when a friend was talking about his wife going into labour for longer than normal, he described his daughter to be playing a tuk tuk innings, even as she was being delivered. Similarly, when a workaholic family member was returning to work after a serious back injury, I told her that she doesn’t need to play like Afridi for the first few days. She just needs to take it easy. She laughed and understood immediately. Beyond everyday conversations, the Afridi-isation of politics, work and sports in Pakistan poses an interesting chicken and egg question: what came first, Afridi or Pakistan’s mindset of putting flash before substance? Is Afridi simply a manifestation of our national obsession with quick fixes that don’t fix anything or did Afridi’s colossal popularity actually influence Pakistan’s popular culture in this direction? The answer is probably a bit of both.

Why dedicate this article to Afridi? There have been days in my life when the reason I woke up in the morning was literally to watch Afridi bat. For a fleeting moment, Afridi made us all believe that Pakistan could defy the laws of gravity, physics and cricket to achieve whatever we wanted. I will miss this feeling the next time Pakistan plays One-Day Internationals.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 8th,  2015.

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SARA | 6 years ago | Reply wonderful article...Afridi will remain at the centre of hearts forever! A true Pakistani...given us several moments to be proud of!
Owais Gurkoo | 6 years ago | Reply There are no words to express how gud it felt seeing Afridi come onto the ground and then play a wonderful innings and at last expecially against India, it was like feast for eyes. 'll miss him a lot in the coming odi's. His retirement will create a lot of disinterest on watching the Pak games henceforth... Miss ya Lala.
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