For some reason, the series was not televised live in Pakistan and I missed what should have been our first encounter on October 4, 1996. Wisden, my childhood bible was on Netscape Navigator by then and had reported sixes being hurled into the parking lot of Nairobi gymkhana that evening. I gave little heed and went back to playing Brian Lara Cricket ‘96.
Zimbabwe travelled to Pakistan later that month and the boy opened the innings with Saeed Anwar. He came across as a pinch hitter who perished early in the first game. However, Wasim Akram persisted with him as an opener in the second. He was dropped at naught but then showed his magic, scoring 66 of 37 balls including four towering sixes at Gaddafi Stadium. We were formally introduced, I became the fan and Shahid Khan Afridi became my hero.
Tall, and handsome, Afridi was a sensation from day one. Boys wanted to be like him and girls wanted to be with him. When he was batting, no one left the seat or switched channels, with him at the crease, anything was possible – but it was the disappointment that was inevitable.
No matter how many sixes he hit and runs he scored, the idiosyncrasy of his dismissals always gave a sense of unfulfilled potential, which reflects in his statistics over a 16-year career.
His batting seemed promising but the muscle in his arm usually over-powered the nerves in his head. He was brutal against medium pacers but suspect against faster men. If it was pitched up, it rocketed to the rope but often it was pitched short and he rushed to the pavilion instead.
Leg spin was never his forte, or for that matter, any kind of spin. His faster one was exciting but not enough to threaten. The highlights of his bowling were in his silky hair and mischievous smile.
He never became the boy who initially replaced Mushtaq Ahmed and he could never grow into the man that had replaced Aamir Sohail. To be fair, he did not need to, he already had a place in my life that others did not – he had become my favourite Pakistani cricketer.
He played his cricket outside the realm of the game itself and inside the hearts of his fans. All I wanted was a six and all he wanted was to hear me clap. We were both young and brash and nothing else mattered, not what the scoreboard said and definitely not what coach or captain advised.
It was difficult to judge if he was falling victim to my unconditional love or if he had started taking advantage of it. Like with most things grey, it was probably a mix of both. My applause had turned him deaf and he refused to hear me moan at his failure.
It was soon apparent that he did not have a place in the team but he managed to get selected anyway, his critics grew larger in number but his fans kept increasing as well. He continued to recklessly throw his wicket away but with his departure, stadiums also emptied out, it was the Shahid Afridi paradox.
Then came the summer of 2004 and I was fortunate to follow our team to Amstelveen. A day before the first game I caught up with the boys at Het Spectrum, a water park in Hoofddorp, 20 minutes from Amsterdam.
It was heartening to see how our new coach Bob Woolmer had combined leisure and training for his boys in a swimming pool. However, I was surprised to learn how highly he rated Afridi as a gifted all-rounder. In the previous year, Shahid had scored 21 runs at an average of 5.33 and taken three wickets at an average of 48. Clearly, Woolmer had no idea about cricket in Pakistan.
Next morning Afridi was out for 19 runs that included two fours and a six and Pakistan were bundled out for 192; in reply, India were all out for a 127. Afridi registered bowling figures of 4-20 and I made my first appearance on Wisden Cricinfo; a picture of a fan in a hat, storming the field of play with a Pakistani flag. We were fans reported of potentially putting Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly in danger of terrorist attacks.
Afridi typically went on to score at an average of 21.63 with a strike rate of 147.82 that year but he also remarkably took 22 wickets at an average of 20.27 and a strike rate of 26.3.
Improving his flippers and adding an orthodox off-spinner to his repertoire, eight years into his career, Afridi had suddenly transformed into a bowling all-rounder. Now, for the first time in his life he merited a place in the side for pure cricketing reasons.
Afridi had stepped into the most fruitful phase of his career where his bowling dominated the affair. In time, he would develop a good wrong‘un and drift would become his most lethal weapon. His batting habits had been spoilt for way too long and were beyond repair. Though, now the sixes were mere bonus and his ball did all the talking.
Test cricket and captaincy also came his way but he could not do justice to them either, again, a part of the blame goes to our system that fails to utilize its assets, a mechanism in which all of stakeholders contribute in their own capacity.
Today, he continues to bat like he does not care but, it is the drastic fall of his bowling form that is the real cause of concern and reason for his possible end – he was wicketless in 37 agonizing overs in the five ODIs in South Africa.