‘We hate Afridi now, but we think we can beat India’. That was the Snapchat explanation of Pakistan cricket right before their match against India.
No fans love like Pakistan, no fans hate like Pakistan. If that isn’t special enough, it’s the ability to do both at once, for prolonged periods of time, while changing what it is you love and hate, and still feeling as passionate as you did the first time, that is truly staggering.
Being a fan of Pakistani cricket is like doing moral gymnastics.
Then there is Shahid Afridi, who is praised for things he has yet to do, screamed at for things he simply cannot do, and yet again, often at the same time.
His captaincy in the India game was hard to support. If Afridi was a golfer (think Happy Gilmore but with more energy) he would have left most of his clubs in his bag this round.
How you could see that pitch, or the game two nights earlier, and think you need four seam bowlers? That is not to say the pitch was easy to play seamers on, it’s just that four, four, did they mistake the wicket for the WACA? In their minds had they travelled back to Sabina Park in 1976?
Then his actual bowling.
He started around the wicket to the left handers on a pitch that was spinning like a drunk ballerina. One ball spun so far Sarfraz Ahmed had to dive just to take it. From over the wicket, he would have been like an unplayable monster of doom, from around the wicket, he was bowling wides. He kept it tight, he bowled ok later on, but he was the only bowler he used all four overs of.
He didn’t bowl out his number one strike bowler who’d returned from exile like a man trying to make up for all his past wrongdoings and went for 11 runs in three overs. He didn’t bowl out his enforcer who has the ability in two balls to put a dent in any batting order. Nor the man who took two wickets in an over that made India dream of past failures.
No, just him, Mr Afridi.
He was also the man he brought in at first drop. When the pitch was ragging sideways and his top order batsmen were struggling to hit it. He didn’t send out the last remaining Akmal with supernatural hand eye co-ordination. He didn’t send out his canny senior pros. Or even his pocket rocket wicketkeeper.
No, just him, Mr Afridi.
It’s not that Afridi doesn’t read the game well, you cannot play for this long and have a poor understanding of cricket. But understanding cricket is just one thing that a captain has to do. In T20 you have 240 balls. 240 decisions. Any of those 240 balls can result in a loss. So why would you trust that position to a man whose USP is hilarious errors of judgement .
It’s part of his DNA, his charm, his raison d’etre. It’s like walking into a Lion’s cage and expecting him not to eat you. By definition, Afridi makes mistakes.
It doesn’t make him less wonderful, in some ways it makes him more wonderful. Has one man ever inspired another country to take up cricket more than Afridi has with Afghanistan. Even if Mohammad Hafeez was Pakhtun, he would not have inspired a nation.
Afridi is something special, it’s just that something special is a shot of whiskey in your morning coffee, not leadership.
The weird thing is, the Pakistani thing is, coming into this game, knowing all of that, living with all of that, Pakistani fans still thought about a win. That first win against India in a major tournament. In India. Against MS and Virat.
Perhaps the thought came more from how bad India were last game, rather than how good Pakistan was. Perhaps it was the form of Afridi and Hafeez in tandem that did it. Or maybe just the pressure of India playing for their whole tournament already.
So yes, if you squinted your eyes Pakistan could beat India. But on Eden Gardens, in the cold hard glare of the flood lights, with a billion people watching, Pakistan played pretty much as Pakistan have been playing for a while. Not quite good enough. Nowhere near good enough for Virat.
And someone needs to be blamed. Luckily, there is already a guy for that. The man who before the game said he got more love from Indian fans than he did Pakistani fans.
Let us just imagine that he didn’t say it to get a future IPL contract or Star Sports commentary gig, or because he thought he should say something nice when arriving in a country where people of his nationality are not always warmly embraced. He may well have said because people who like Afridi in Pakistan are called Afridiots. He may well have said it because for people in India his constant low scores are just part of his charm, not the reason their team loses.
He may have said it because he is Afridi, and he doesn’t mean everything he does.
Maybe this is the verbal equivalent of one of his shots across the line that goes straight up in the air. Or the quicker ball he slips down the legside.
But, if you are one of the fans who actually, really, in your heart of hearts, thought you could beat India, can you really blame the selectors who put Afridi in charge, the superfluous fourth seamer decision, and pretty much everything that Afridi did in this match, any match, or life in general, for the loss.
If you really thought that Pakistan could win, then you are Afridi and Pakistan’s cognitive dissonance.
And you may love that, and hate that, probably at the same time.