In Praise of Shahid Afridi
As musings about Mumbai take over from memories of Mohali, there honestly is little to remember of the cricket played the day before yesterday. With the odd exception of Sehwag’s blitzkrieg and Harbhajan’s scorcher to get Umar Akmal at a time he was threatening to run away the game, the rest is like an indistinguishable and undistinguished blur. Suhrith put it beautifully here when he said he would ‘remember close to diddly-squat about this match in the years to come’; the statement is perhaps more prescient than he intended, having been rendered true for many a mere forty-eight hours later.
However, if there is one image I will carry from this game, it will be from a genuinely distraught yet bravely smiling Shahid Afridi, at the post-match conference. I honestly admit I never quite liked Afridi. Apart from the fact that he never seemed to move out of his twenties (perhaps a model to follow for all CriticalTwenties authors!), which struck me as incredible, I took an active dislike to him when he, in the India-Pakistan 1999 World Cup game bludgeoned Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad to all parts of the ground in the early overs of Pakistan’s ultimately unsuccessful run chase. But in the post-match conference, Afridi’s words conveyed a sense of dignity and grace about the man which renders his age manipulations and past cricketing exploits against India, as frustrating as they may have been at the time, trifling.
It is hard enough for him being the Pakistani cricket team captain. Harder still, when the country is an absolute wreck and counts on a grand victory in the Cricket World Cup as respite from its accumulating miseries. And hardest still, when with the weight of these expectations, one captains Pakistan to a devastating loss against the old arch-rival India in the semi-final. Afridi not only bore these onerous burdens magnanimously during the course of the game, but poignantly expressed both his hurt at the loss and his quiet respect for India’s performance at the post-match ceremony.
He hemmed and hawed at the difficult questions on Pakistan’s performance clearly expressing his frustration both at his fielders for having dropped more chances than one can count (“Sachin was lucky”) and at his batsmen’s indiscretion including his own (“we played irresponsible shots”). At the same time, he wished India well for the final as only a genuine sportsman would and apologised to his nation unexpectedly at the end of Shastri’s questions, betraying a deep emotion of having failed in his mission.
Most revealingly, Afridi retained a hint of a smile throughout the post-match conference—a smile of a man who had lost a game but refused to lose his dignity at a time when it was easiest to do so. Long after the dust settles at Mohali, Mumbai and this World Cup, I will carry this image with me—of a beaten captain who lost a cricket game but won something infinitely more valuable- a country’s genuine and heartfelt respect.