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Three of the best

March 17, 2013

Shahid Afridi. -Photo by AFP

JOHANNESBURG: Pakistan ended the third ODI at the Wanderers as they were expected to – with a loss that leaves them with no room for error in this series.

This was to be expected – Pakistan’s record in third ODIs of series against South Africa is pretty poor, as is their record at the Wanderers (one win in nine matches). Pakistan are a team that has nearly always relied on outbowling the opposition throughout the course of ODI cricket, and the ground in Johannesburg – one which has a quick outfield, the rarified air of the Highveld and a pitch which has bounce but little else – means that many of Pakistan’s greatest assets are hampered by the conditions.

But this match will be remembered for three of the best innings in recent ODI history. First there was Hashim Amla. Once considered not good enough for pyjama cricket, he’s become the best shortform batsman in the world without changing what makes him great in the five-day game. He only plays “cricketing shots” – it’s just that in this version he played an advanced version of it. As the cliché goes, he makes the game look easy. Not just because he scores at whatever rate is required, but also because once he is in, he never looks uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, there was AB de Villiers at the other end – playing the perfect ODI innings for the second time in eight days. In both the first and third ODIs, he has come in when Pakistan were beginning to take a hold of the game and immediately set about to redress that balance.

Unlike Amla, his range of shots is often innovative and outrageous; but again unlike some Pakistanis, the risks he takes are always calculated. Considering his ability to counter-attack and convert his starts, the intensity he brings to the running and the fact that he has every gear required for batting in the format, he might be the best batting partner in the world right now.

Pakistan’s struggles against them were to be expected. After all, the duo are ranked at number 1 and 2 in the ICC ODI rankings for batsmen. Since January 2008, both of them average above 58 in ODIs with strike rates above 90. Those, especially when compared to the talent Misbah-ul-Haq has at his disposal, are quite ludicrous stats. Even in the era of flat pitches and post-T20 bashing, those stats speak of remarkable consistency. De Villiers and Amla together, for pairs that have batted more than ten times together in ODI cricket history, they are peerless.

On Friday, Misbah talked about how in the clamor to slate our own players, we often forget how good the other side are; or as it may be referred to in the local lexicon “aglay bhi khelne aaye huay hain”. Perhaps the Pakistani bowlers did bowl badly today, but more than likely it was Amla and de Villiers who made them look bad.

With the South Africans there is reason and care; with Afridi there is neither. 
There was one more innings that will be remembered.

In the past fifteen months, Shahid Afridi has averaged over 80 with the ball with an economy rate above five (excluding matches against Bangladesh and Afghanistan). He has been a passenger in the team for most that time, especially when one considers that in that duration, he has passed thirty-five only once.

It used to be said of good all-rounders that if they failed in one discipline, they would make up for it in another and Afridi has failed to do that quite spectacularly. But such is his fanbase and support that after being dropped for the ODI series against India, he was recalled for the South Africa series despite showing little improvement during his time off. There have been indications and murmurs that not every one of the Pakistanis in South Africa appreciates his return without him earning his spot on merit. But of course, meritocracy has never been a strong point for the boys in green.

Afridi vindicated his fanbase today. His – and often Pakistan’s – cricket is one of moments. It’s not the sustained brilliance of Amla or de Villiers. Yet, somehow, this makes it more fun. With the South Africans there is reason and care; with Afridi there is neither. He bashes unconditionally and without regret. Watching an Afridi innings is an experience that has to be lived, the imminent death of which is what makes it extraordinary – it’s an adrenaline rush; a bungee jump compared to Amla’s savouring of the finest wines.

Today was one of those rare days when everything went right – the stars aligned, the stage was set, and Afridi swung away. In Pakistan, occasional brilliance always trumps sustained competence; Shahid Afridi always trumps Misbah-ul-Haq. It may not be the ideal way to build a team, but it’s more entertaining to watch than any collection of probots. Fifteen months of subpar performances from Afridi were forgiven today for one knock. Even he realized, as he admitted later, that his innings was useless, as he could not carry Pakistan through till the end. He will probably be in the minority with that viewpoint.

Pakistan will now go to Durban, try to level terms and plan for what they’ve never done before: win a bilateral series against the Proteas. It may not be likely, but like the second innings of today’s match, there is room for hope even if it seems irrational.