“This man of the match interview I did just now was only my second interview in English. I haven’t even learnt English in school, but I’m not too bad, right? But bhaijaan, can we have this chat in a mix of Urdu and Hindi, that will be good for both of us.”
“Sure, but just curious, I know a bit of Urdu because some people speak the language in India, but how do you know Hindi?”
“Arre try me. I watch all Bollywood movies, so my Hindi is fantastic. I just saw Tiger Zindaa Hai recently, Sallu bhai ke bade fan hai!” (I’m a massive fan of Salman Khan.)
Before the formal interview with Shaheen Afridi can get underway, we are in splits discussing Indian cinema, and its popularity among Pakistanis. We decide we will not indulge in small talk over his height, or similarities between his bowling action and that of Mitchell Starc’s. He is tired of that already, with almost every conversation he has with reporters these days ending up in those discussions.
“I don’t even think my action has any similarity with that of Starc’s, but people keep bringing it up on the internet,” he complains. “By the almighty’s grace, I have got a natural action, and I haven’t really tried to model it around anyone else’s.”
Afridi decimated Ireland with figures of 6 for 15 in Pakistan’s match on Tuesday (January 16), but when he woke up that morning, he thought he wasn’t even going to play the match. His right thigh was sore, and when he went up to the coach to tell him about it, he was advised to get it taped up and wait until an hour before the start of play. Luckily, the strapping did its magic, and the management was more than happy to unleash the lanky fast bowler on Ireland.
“It is a great feeling that I am able to lead this pace attack and god willing, we will finish at the top in this tournament,” Afridi begins, all optimism. “In the first match (against Afghanistan, which Pakistan lost by five wickets), it felt like the team was going through a low. Right now, we have made a terrific comeback. We don’t get these kind of conditions in Pakistan, and it really helps when there is bounce like this on the wicket.”
It was not too long ago that Afridi was only bowling with a tennis ball around small grounds near the Torkham Highway in Landi Kotal, a small town bordering Afghanistan in the north-western part of Pakistan.
“My brother (Riaz Afridi) was a Test cricketer, so watching him, I developed this liking for fast bowling,” says Afridi, before slipping in a quick word on his batting skills. “Waise, thoda bahut batting bhi kar letaa hu (I can do a decent job with the bat too).
“My interest in the sport started growing from tennis-ball cricket around 2015. That was the year I attended the Under-16 trials and eventually played for Pakistan, that too in Australia. That was a great start for me, to get to start outside Asia in my first season in hard-ball cricket. This is only my third year in professional cricket.”
Then came the first-class debut, and the video that shot him to fame. Playing for Khan Research Laboratories against Rawalpindi, Afridi picked up 8 for 39 in the second innings, and an amateur video from that performance went viral.
Mushtaq Ahmed, the former Pakistan legspinner, was one of the first major scouts to notice the talent in Afridi and expose him to formal training.
“Mushi bhai helped me a lot when I first went to the National Cricket Academy (NCA),” he recollects. “He is such a senior player, and it feels great to work with him. Before meeting him, I had only heard his name on the TV. So when I got to meet him, it felt really nice.”
At this point, it strikes us how young Afridi is. He was only three years old when Mushtaq made his last Test appearance.
“No, I have never got the chance to see Mushtaq Ahmed live, but in Pakistan, we watch the footage from ’92 World Cup a lot, and I had spotted him there.”
Mushtaq was, of course, a spinner, but there were plenty of heroes from the fast bowling department he could have idolised from those videos of the 1992 World Cup.
“Wasim Akram was my hero. Waqar Younis too,” he says. “I have heard stories that when they would bowl from opposite ends, there would be a competition between them like if one guy got a wicket, the other person would feel like, why didn’t I get a wicket, and press for it harder. That is such a healthy competition to have within the team. So I decided, I also want to have a story like that one day.”
In that case, if he is the Akram, who is the Waqar in this Pakistan U-19 side?
“This team has a lot of characters like that,” he insists. “If I am bowling from one end, there is (Muhammad) Musa from the opposite side, or sometimes Arshad (Iqbal). It’s a fantastic feeling to have so many good fast bowlers in our team.
“I met Wasim bhai in Australia recently. He gave me some very nice tips, on how to use the conditions we were going to experience here in New Zealand. He made me understand a few things very nicely, like how to attack with a plan B when plan A isn’t working. It has been great so far.”
In recent years, it has been a trend among youngsters to aim for cash-rich franchise Twenty20 leagues around the world after a successful season or two. But Afridi has his focus set elsewhere.
“I mostly dream about playing for my country,” he reveals. “I think if a chance in the PSL (Pakistan Super League) ever comes by, that would be good, but for now, I am playing in the Under-19 Pakistan side, and I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity of enjoying cricket for Pakistan by thinking about PSL. Playing in this league and that league – that will carry on forever. Right now, for me it is more important to bowl as many overs as possible in first-class cricket, the four-day games especially. T20 I feel, and now T10, has made cricket a strange game. Things have become so weird that the fastest of bowlers are also getting hit for sixes behind their heads all the time. AB de Villiers has made life hell for our kind!
“Bass karo bhaijaan, bhook lagi hai. Baatein toh chalti rahengi, par khaana important hai.” (Enough brother, I’m hungry now. We can keep having chats, but food is very important.) On that note, another hearty laugh later, we decide to press the stop button on the dictaphone. ( Courtesy www.wisdenindia.com)