Twenty one years ago, a tall, lanky young leg-spinner from Pakistan, all of 16 years and 217 days old, strode out to the middle at the fall of Saleem Elahi's wicket at the Gymkhana Club Ground, Nairobi. That was the first time he came out to bat in the international arena. What followed was - 0,6,1,0,4,0,0,6,0,0,6,6,1,1,6,6,2,6,4,4,0,0,6,6,1,4,1,1,0,4,1,6,0,6,0,2,4,1,0,0 - and life was never the same again, for him and the average Pakistani fan.
That 102 off 40 balls from Shahid Afridi was an accident that proved to be a boon. It was an accident that also proved to be a curse. He gave Pakistan hope and then teased the entire nation for the next two decades.
From being plucked from obscurity to being a cult hero inside the first two matches of his career, the start to Afridi's career was just as blistering as many of his famous innings subsequently. There were expectations and then there were extremely high expectations every time he strode out to bat. He bowed down to public demand. Afridi the spinner now became Afridi the swashbuckling batsman. Afridi the unknown was now Afridi the entertainer.
Thus began the story of an enigmatic career that even the great writers of yore would not have been able to script.
Every time he walked out to bat, with his chest thrust out, chin raised and with the confidence of a man who had just got a big promotion on the day his girlfriend agreed to marry him, there was an adrenaline rush. There was madness and there was thrill. But more than anything else, there was hope. The hope that he will play a blinder, the hope that he will perform a miracle, the hope that he will provide entertainment and the hope that he will take Pakistan past the finish line. He was the face of the nation, printed on billboards, appearing in advertisements and became a household name. The entire nation came to a standstill when he walked out to bat.
But more often than not there was disappointment.
However, the joy of an Afridi blitz often outweighed the disappointment of his failure. He was an entertainer for the outside world but a heartthrob of Pakistan. The one who connected 'dil se' with the entire nation.
Watching the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara bat was education. While watching Afridi bat was pure entertainment. There were no technicalities involved, it was all about the art of slogging. An Afridi innings was like watching a David Dhawan movie - there was no logic involved. An Afridi innings was as predictable as a Karan Johar movie, but you would still want to watch it for the star cast. An Afridi innings was like watching the present day Arsenal - delightful at times but frustrating in equal measure - the blood pressure invariably shot up to thermonuclear levels.
Afridi was predictable, yet it was very hard to understand him. He trod an extreme path. It was either six or out. It was either retire or un-retire. Seam-fiddling was taking a bite of the cherry rather than casual use of fingers, pitch tampering was like dancing to the tune of Shakira in middle of an international match. He wore his heart on his sleeve. But it was madness. And there was no method to his madness.
Soon the batting prowess started to wane. The struggles became evident. Then he pulled out his old trump card - remember that leg-spin bowling for which he was selected in the squad at first? Yes, that leg-spin bowling was now the most lethal weapon in his armoury. The killer drift made him one of the most dangerous spinners in the world. The star man celebration with two fingers pointing towards the sky became legendary. It was mimicked in the alleys of Pakistan.
Once again, he gave Pakistan hope.
Just when you wrote him off, he rose from the ashes. He went wicket-less for 342 balls but returned like a superman with figures of 7/12 against West Indies in 2013 - still the second-best figures in ODI cricket. Just when you thought his career was winding down, he conjured up two sensible innings and that too back-to-back, in the 2009 World T20 semi-final and final.
Bloody hell, unbelievable. That's why there was always hope with Afridi.
Ahmer Naqvi came up with a stupendous line on Afridi in ESPNCricinfo's Cricket Monthly:
"The formula by which Afridi lives is that he fails until he feels he has to succeed."
People lived in denial that Afridi the batsman was still as influential as Afridi the bowler despite his own admission that he was a bowler first. Every time he walked out to bat, there was still hope. Pakistan are 150/5, needing 85 from 40 balls, your best batsmen are back in the hut, it's a big struggle from hereon. But no. We won't give in. There is Afridi still to come...
Even in dire straits the fans got the energy and will to send out a huge roar as soon as Afridi strode out to the crease. Because there was hope. More often than not, he failed, rest of the times, he conjured magical innings which elicited praise from Tony Grieg, David Lloyd and remained etched in the hearts of Pakistan fans forever. Pakistan are 150/5, needing just 35 runs to win from 50 balls. Afridi strides to the wicket, Afridi perishes - with that quintessential closed-eye swing across the line, gets a top edge which touches Mars and returns into the hands of a fielder. "Absolutely brainless, What the F*** was he thinking there," you could hear Pakistan fans cry out loud in unison as the ball went up in orbit. But then, for a moment people forgot, the two parts of the body that didn't work while Afridi was batting were his feet and his brain.
After every disappointment there was hope and after every hope there was disappointment.
Soon the drift vanished from his leg-spin. The bat swing produced top edges or misses more than ever. As a captain, the mental battle was lost. "As a player, I am fit. As a captain, I am not fit," he said after the 2016 World T20 match against Australia in Mohali.
The much-anticipated announcement arrived. That of retiring after the World T20 last year. But much before that, he ruffled a few feathers back home saying he was loved more in India than Pakistan. Then came a blistering 19-ball 49 and 2/27 against Bangladesh. He then went on to thank fans from Kashmir which drew even more flak amidst a tense political situation. His off-field antics were uncalled for. And that was followed by eight runs, 19 runs, 0/25, 2/40 and along with it two consecutive losses for Pakistan. The frustrations grew. Pakistan went into a do-or-die match against Australia. A win and there was a slim chance of survival.
"Australia could be the last match of my career," he said with a shy smile after the loss to New Zealand.
It's toss time in Mohali - Steven Smith wins the toss and elects to bat.
No one is interested in his toss talk.
Then arrive those predictably unpredictable words, "I haven't taken any decision (on the retirement). I will do it in front of my nation."
No one knows whether to laugh or cry. The emotions are hanging in balance. But again there is hope of an Afridi special.
Australia post a daunting 193. Afridi goes wicket-less.
Pakistan have got off to a decent start, they are 85/3 in the 11th over. Out walks a tall, hefty guy, 20 years later, with the same enthusiasm, with chest thrust out, chin raised.
There is hope, hope of one last miracle from the heartthrob.
What follows is – 0, 1, 6, 0, 1, 6, OUT. He goes back after charging down the track, eyes closed, missing a wild swing and getting stumped.
It's like someone has pressed the rewind button. Everything is a flashback. The black and white images of Afridi clobbering the bowlers out of the park and then suddenly disappearing, just like one of those balls which is hit into the orbit in front your eyes.
The innings encapsulated Afridi's 20-year career. There was hope and then it vanished.
From a bowler to a batsman to an all-rounder to a bowler, the metamorphosis of Afridi was nothing short of fascinating.
He entertained, he disappointed, he thrilled, he frustrated, he divided opinion, he united a nation.
There were great cricketers and then there were legends.
But then there was Shahid Afridi. There was hope...
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Feb 21, 2017 10:19:28 IST