As Shahid Afridi walked into bat on Sunday evening, I texted a friend saying "Lala is due".
He replied, "He has been due for 16 years." I didn’t argue.
Like the spoiled child of a family who breaks all the laws during the day and all curfews at night, yet forgiven at the breakfast table next morning, Afridi, for a large part of his career, has appeared apathetic towards the misery of those who have loved him most.
This unconditional love for a cricketer does not come from kinship or statistics built over time, not in Pakistan at least. In a country consumed by the belief of a supreme being and powers of mysticism, absolute devotion can only stem from a miracle. An act that alters the life of a cricketer and those who are lucky enough to witness divine intervention.
Fazal Mehmood at the Oval, Hanif Mohammad in Bridegtown, Javed Miandad in Sharjah, Imran Khan in Karachi, Wasim Akram at MCG, Saeed Anwar in Chennai and Shoaib Akhtar at Eden Gardens. Events that make observers weak in the knee create permanent emotional attachments for the passionate observer.
These occurrences never need to be recalled or remembered, but remain omnipresent for those who have seen them unfold.
In the league of extraordinary gentlemen who have received such devoted allegiance in Pakistan, there is a semblance of common denominators. Each a master at his crafts, an absolute genius of his trade, amongst the best in the world and easily the best in his own team. But Afridi is the one man who has stood out and reached the stature without meeting the worldly standards, set by those who enjoyed assurance of sworn loyalty before him.
Afridi was a boy who promised more than he delivered as a man. He has had a career filled with dark spots, only illuminated with scattered patches of divine light.
A lot of Afridi detractors rightly point out that 378 wickets in 377 ODI games with a batting average of 23.44 does not qualify him for the pedestal occupied only by immortals. But few would argue Afridi's strength to mobilise a mass of followers. Cricket stands in Pakistan have perhaps never filled in anticipation of a gig from a single performer, or, emptied out with his exit, like they have for Afridi.
However, as established earlier, in a country like Pakistan, the barometer of divinity does not measure consistency, instead, it craves wizardry. A magic spell, or a swish of a wand, or sometimes just a sleight of hand.
Afridi has 32 ODI Man of the Match awards, four more than Saeed Anwar, the second highest for a Pakistani on the list. That is eight more than Inzamam-ul-Haq and ten more than Wasim Akram who are third and fourth respectively with similar number of games as Afridi. It might not portray a complete picture, but going by these numbers in isolation, not only has Afridi single-handedly won more ODI matches than anyone else in Pakistan's history, he has done it more consistently than what Akram and Inzamam could in their careers.
The fact that he has always been accused of recklessness and charged for disregard, but never seriously for disloyalty or ill-intent, adds to Afridi's reverence. What should normally be a prerequisite for adorning national colours, in Pakistan, where cricket fans often feel betrayed, the virtue of integrity reigns supreme.
Nine runs required of 4 balls. Ashwin comes around the wicket, pitches outside leg, Afridi makes room, and boom; it sails over extra cover. "Only he could play that shot, only he had the nerve to play that kind of a shot, magnificent," says Sunil Gavaskar from the commentary box. The equation is suddenly in Pakistan's favour again, three required of three and two to tie. Plenty of gaps are visible with boundary runners manning the edges of the rope.
But 'consensus reality' is often superseded by 'cognitive liberty'; the right of each individual to think autonomously by using the full spectrum of his mind, which eventually creates his own reality. And every single cricket follower in the world is aware of the reality conjectured inside Afridi's mind. "Alright, only one ball to go, because it will be a four, or out," Russel Arnold sitting next to Gavaskar predicts what millions of Pakistani fans fear most, and also pray for.
While the carom ball is a relatively new induction in the international arena, on the streets of Karachi, where Afridi grew up, it is an old and extremely popular form of art known as "the finger" in tape ball cricket. And Ashwin ‘fingered’ one ball too many. "I knew that I could hit his carom ball and I had spotted it... I play single-mindedly. That's what makes me comfortable," explained Afridi.
"And he goes again, goes with this one in the air, and it’s a SIX. Shahid Afridi, you Beauty!" screamed Ramiz Raja to the delight of millions of Pakistani fans because the hit did not seem it would cross the boundary. "What a win, Pakistan have smashed it," shouted Raja while 180 million people erupted in celebration. The Pakistani idol had typically gone from the ritual of being pelted with stones to finding thousands of fresh converts, in 60 seconds.
The encore was as spectacular and highlighted the man’s capacity to render the opposition completely helpless, this time a valiant Bangladesh. It also demonstrated his ability to deliver utter joy and despair simultaneously.
Well aware of the innumerable disappointments and the high probability of failure calculated in the mind, there is a deep rooted belief in the heart of the entire country in the enigma that Afridi has always been. Perhaps like the blind trust of his people that often makes him complacent and almost always nonchalant, it is the purity of complete conviction in his ability that seems to give him herculean powers. Faith can move mountains, they say, and so can Afridi, his fans confirm.
As Pakistan lines up against Sri Lanka on Saturday, the nervousness will perhaps not stem from the fact that this would be the title decider but from whether Afridi will stun spectators with another encore.