Although rumours buzzed that Shahid Afridi and Mishabul Haq did not get along, Haq is one of the few players Afridi praised in his book | AFP
Although rumours buzzed that Shahid Afridi and Mishabul Haq did not get along, Haq is one of the few players Afridi praised in his book | AFP

Recently when I was talking about Shahid Afridi’s autobiography, Game Changer, with a sports journalist, he asked me, “How can you be a Misbahul Haq fan as well as an Afridi fan? They are polar opposites.” Indeed they are polar opposites. One is subtle, cautious, thoughtful and perceived to be an introvert; the other is impulsive, spontaneous and extroverted. That’s why one of the most interesting bits in Afridi’s book for me is the way he so nonchalantly lays to rest the myth that when they were playing together for the Pakistan team, they never got along. In the book, Afridi praises Haq for being a decent man — something he doesn’t do unconditionally for some other players that he mentions.

Written with journalist Wajahat S. Khan, Game Changer is a rapid read. The pace is fast, just the way Afridi bats: explosive but always threatening to implode. This is how he talks as well: hastily. He is a challenge to those trying to keep up with his rambling stream of thought. But Khan, himself an impulsive character, does well to empathise with Afridi’s disposition. He succeeds in converting Afridi’s ramblings into coherent opinions about his stints as a former “party animal”, captain, hero, anti-hero, villain and an international cricketing phenomenon.

I am not surprised that the book has already become controversial. Afridi being Afridi, refuses to hold back. Unlike another ‘bad boy’ and impulsive Pakistani cricketer — Shoaib Akhtar — whose 2011 autobiography, Controversially Yours, written with an Indian journalist, was rather disappointing and inexplicably restrained, Game Changer takes no prisoners.

Former cricketer Shahid Afridi’s memoirs of his career are as freewheeling and explosive as his batting and will likely draw out as many critics as admirers for its no-holds-barred style

Although a Pashtun born in the tribal regions of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Afridi continues to identify himself as a red-blooded Karachiite, the city he grew up in. He gladly romances his youthful years running with the hares and hunting with the hounds in the city’s mean streets and rough neighbourhoods. He even goes on to inform that, at one point, he became very close to some MQM toughies and might have ended up the way many such lads did in the early 1990s: dead. A tight slap from his elder brother restored his senses.

According to Afridi, Karachi’s streets and club cricket make cricketers street-smart and tough — tougher and more innovative compared to cricketers emerging from other cities and towns of Pakistan. He insists that his sensational beginning, as the world’s then fastest ODI century-maker in 1996 at the age of 19 (he says the media misattributed his age as 16), did not put much pressure on him because that innings was entirely instinctive. He almost says that he wasn’t conscious of what he was doing as he smashed the Sri Lankan bowlers for sixes and fours to reach a century in just 37 balls. After that innings, his father — who used to give him a thrashing for playing cricket — finally made peace with his son’s passion for the game.

The book picks up pace very early on. After all, as a batsman, Afridi was known to often try to hit the very first ball for a six. But the sixes do begin to rain once he begins to talk about former teammates and coaches. He is particularly harsh on former captains and coaches Javed Miandad and Waqar Younis. He accuses Miandad of trying to cut short his career when Miandad was coach of the team in 1999, and calls him selfish and a man who “is still living in a past in which he was a revered batsman and star.” He calls Younis a “terrible captain” who failed to inspire the team during the 2003 World Cup. He thinks Younis was an equally terrible coach. Afridi calls his tussles with Younis “ego clashes”; however, he does mention that he eventually made peace with Younis. He found Shoaib Malik to be a disastrous captain as well, but blames the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) for putting Malik on the spot by making him captain when there were more experienced players in the team.

There’s another myth which Afridi crushes. When Younis Khan was captain, many cricket journalists had more than alluded that Afridi was leading a rebellion against him. In the book, however, Afridi accuses another star for this whom he doesn’t name, but he says enough to suggest that it was the stylish batsman Mohammad Yousuf he is talking about. He is all praise for Younis Khan and claims that he became a victim of dressing room politics — politics which also threatened to topple Afridi’s own captaincy.

Then comes the part in which Afridi says that he was warned by former Pakistani all-rounder Abdul Razzaq who suspected that Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir were being shadowed by a shady bookie. According to Afridi, he alerted PCB’s then chairman Ijaz Butt and manager Yawar Saeed, but they did nothing. Afridi lambasts Salman Butt for almost destroying young Amir’s career and then lying through his teeth when he was apprehended for spot-fixing.

The only true hero in Afridi’s book is Wasim Akram, who also writes the foreword to the book. Afridi praises him for sticking up for Afridi when Miandad and Younis were supposedly trying to oust him. He says that Akram and Younis never got along. Like Akhtar had done in his book, Afridi, too, wishes he had played under Imran Khan’s captaincy. In fact, he believes that Akram learned a lot from Khan because, like Khan, Akram also allowed his players “to have as much fun as possible off the field” as long as they remained fit and willing to give their best on it.

Afridi is not shy like most Pakistani cricketers who have penned autobiographies about what this ‘fun’ really constituted — except maybe former captain Mushtaq Mohammad. He talks about a “party culture” which included nightclubs and lots of women. But in 2005, Afridi fell in line with Inzamamul Haq’s captaincy during which Inzi tried to infuse discipline in a volatile squad through an overt exhibition of religious rituals. Even though Afridi does appreciate this attempt, he says that this was not the reason he stopped partying. He writes: “I stopped because I loved it too much”! He says his is “an addictive personality” and so much partying had begun to disrupt his life.

The last rapid bits of the book clearly exhibit a possible ambition to one day enter politics. Afridi has positive views about Gen Pervez Musharraf, Gen Raheel Sharif and Benazir Bhutto. He thinks the current Chief of Army Staff, Gen Qamar Bajwa, is very learned about cricket. He also praises Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto, especially after Bilawal intervened on his behalf during his tussle with former PCB chairman Ijaz Butt.

According to Afridi, both Sharif and Bilawal wanted him to join their parties, which Afridi found a bit off-putting. However, he reserves the biggest praise for the current prime minister, Imran Khan. He loves Khan as a cricketer and philanthropist and thinks he is an honest man. But Afridi is also quick to remind Khan that this honesty is of no use if his (Khan’s) own party is teeming with “dishonest” members.

Game Changer is exactly the kind of an autobiography one would expect from a character such as Afridi. I, for one, thoroughly appreciated his openness about so many things. I also appreciated the manner in which Wajahat S. Khan managed to put it all on paper. It’s a book which even a casual cricket fan can enjoy and appreciate. One wishes, however, that Khan had put in some effort into fact-checking Afridi’s recollections, since a number of errors of dates and cricketing results make an appearance in the text.

The reviewer is the author of four books on the social history of Pakistan and a regular Dawn columnist

Game Changer
By Shahid Afridi and Wajahat S. Khan
Harper Sport, India
ISBN: 978-9353026714

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 19th, 2019