Goodbye Shahid Afridi: Lala and the unconditional love of fans

Pakistan, these days, is coming to terms with life’s bleak truths. Everything is transient, nothing is permanent and this applies to the cricketing career of Shahid Afridi too.

Early this week, in the middle of the Pakistan Super League (PSL), Afridi put out a farewell post and a video. “Good bye to PSL, my body is in serious pain”.

His exit has been slow, his retirements and U-turns many. Tests, ODIs, T20 and now franchise cricket, he has periodically lightened his load and dragged his feet while leaving the turf. He did overstay but no one complained. Afridi was entertaining company. He had the popular vote, he had earned the authority to write his own script and also pull the curtain.

Afridi didn’t get the perfect last game. He didn’t get a chance to hit his down-on-knees signature six. Pushed down the order, he wasn’t needed to bat. He did manage a couple of game-changing dismissals with those fastish leg-breaks but Afridi was never about wickets. Other’s wickets that is; his own could get hysterically entertaining. He even called for a runner once, years after that provision was withdrawn, in a game against Bangladesh, driving spectators up the wall.

For the die-hards, he did oblige with a magical frame in his last game, a reminder of his many triumphs from the time he made his debut in 1996. After a direct-hit run out from wide mid-on, he struck the Afridi pose – arms and feet spread wide apart, index fingers pointed to the skies making the silhouette sharper, angelic smile on face and back arched like a bow.

There he was like a giant neon-lit ‘X’ making the central square glow for that one last time. Just before leaving the stage for good, Afridi was underlining his status as international cricket’s original X-factor.

After the game, Afridi was asked about the secret of his eternal youth. Feeling his lower back, massaging those fragile L1 and L5, he would say it was love of the fans that kept him going. “I love them, they are my family, they still want to see me in the game but you have to be 100 percent fit in cricket these days for that.”

Next month Afridi would be 42 if you go by cricinfo.com, and 47 if his memoir Game Changer is to be believed. Afridi’s age is the pursuit of the pedantic. In his case, age is an irrational number. His world record 40-ball 102 when he was 16 or his quick sharp pick-up and throw in the last game, Afridi’s actions on field have never been age-appropriate.

Back in the day, the Aussie press called him ‘Kid Dynamite’. Years later, Ravi Shastri, from the commentary box, gave a more eternal nickname. ‘Boom, Boom’, which also became a high-value brand.

Though, the name that best captured the ageless entertainer was the one given to him by Pakistan. Afridi was Lala to everyone in his neck of the woods. It conveyed affection, it was easy to shout out, it’s just two taps of the tongue to the upper palate. There couldn’t have been a better pet name for the endlessly indulged, easily forgiven, forever-young cricketer.

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They say to understand the Cult of Afridi a trip to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is essential. Those on the 2004 tour to Pakistan talk about the ODI at Peshawar with a twinkle in their eyes. They had carried home tales of magnanimous Pathans and their unabashed bias for their Lala.

Every self-respecting Pathan in Pakistan’s wild west felt it was his duty to be with Afridi when he was taking on the Indian bowlers. Just a few days back, in the previous one-dayer at Rawalpindi, Afridi had hit a 54-ball 80. He had hit four towering sixes too. Lala was in form, Peshawar wouldn’t have missed the chance of watching their Lala hammering the daylights out of their arch-rivals for anything.

At least a couple of hours before the start of the game, the stadium was jam-packed. You didn’t need to necessarily have tickets to get into the stadium, ample influence or sufficient swagger too would suffice. To avoid commotion, fights and possible stampede, the entry points were shut much before the scheduled start of the game.

With the toss about minutes away, the press box started to get threateningly crowded. The spectators were slowly spilling over into the media space.

As the captains walked on the field, loud thuds were heard from outside the stadium. The reporters at the ground that day narrate the hilarious story of the infuriated Peshawar fans getting shut out of the stadium. Expecting the Pathans, with bonafide tickets, to walk back home and watch the game on TV would expose one’s ignorance about the history of the region. One enterprising group would uproot a tree and use the large log to knock over the main gate.

Afridi would get out for just 6. The inning had a boundary. Peshawar didn’t get to see even one Afridi six. There was disappointment but no boos. The Pathans would dust-off the dirt from the pyjamas and join the mass exodus towards the exit.

Wasim Akran has seen worse. He recalls a game against Zimbabwe in Peshawar where the stadium was “absolutely choc-a-bloc” and “the crowd was going nuts, screaming his name”. Lala would glove the first ball he faced and was out. Hell would break loose.

“The crowd attempted to break the gates – they wanted him to have another go. They said it was a ‘try ball’, like it was a street match. The cops had to come in with water cannons and tear gas. It’s remarkable that Afridi had that star power just a couple of years into the Pakistan team,” writes Akram in the foreword of Game Changer.

To build that reputation, Afridi needed to be strong-willed. Afridi senior wanted his son to be a doctor but the boy obsessed with big hits had other plans. Coaches in Khyber Agency told young Afridi to cut down on his shots but they gave up as the boy with unusually strong wrists would win the team impossible games. There were those who doubted his age but once the teenager started thrashing senior bowlers even those whispers would die.

Afridi’s father would move to Karachi and others from the family would follow later. The big city wasn’t kind to the Afridis. The stock market crash hit the family hard, Afridi’s heart would break when he would see his parents desperately praying for heavenly intervention. “I’d see them do this every night. It broke my heart to hear their sobs. Later, when I’d go and touch the prayer rugs after they were in bed, I’d find them soaked with their tears. That’s when I prayed that I had to play for Pakistan,” Afridi would later write in the book.

The setback would firm up his resolve. Afridi knew to change circumstances at home, he needed quality cricket. He knew only one way, he had to hit out of trouble.

The world record fastest ODI hundred in only his second international game made him an overnight sensation. (File)

The world record fastest ODI hundred in only his second international game made him an overnight sensation. The inning that made him a star has a thread that would interest Indian fans. The story goes that Sachin Tendulkar had handed his favourite bat to Waqar Younis, rival on the field but friend beyond the boundary rope. Tendulkar wanted the Pakistan pacer to help him procure exactly the same piece of wood from Sialkot, a sports goods manufacturing centre. When Afridi was waiting for his turn, Younis handed him Tendulkar’s bat. The rest is now part of the subcontinent’s folklore. His storied career is well-documented, its impact on Pakistan is a fascinating tale.

Since that game in the 90s to his final outing for PSL side Quetta Gladiator, Afridi has symbolised eternal hope for cricket fans. For years they have remained invested in every hopeless cause, with the sole hope that Afridi could perform a miracle. He had retired from international cricket a while back but PSL helped fans remain in touch with their favourite player and that golden past when Pakistan cricket was at the top.

While Lala wouldn’t be around there’s another Afridi whose popularity is shooting. This one is a pace bowler who has the delightful skill of shattering stumps. He too wears No.10, he is also seen as a game-changer. The Pashto speaking Pathans, historically classified as a martial tribe, continue to have their skin in the game.

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Last March, a video of men with Kalashnikovs firing indiscriminately from the front lawn of Shaheen Shah Afridi’s sprawling Upper Khyber home went viral. They were Shaheen’s brothers and cousins shooting the evening sky in celebration, their unbridled joy evident from the constant fountain of empties spraying out of their slick weapons.

This was around the time, Shahid Afridi, in a tweet, had confirmed that Shaheen was to be the suitable boy for his daughter and he wished all success to Pakistan cricket’s brightest young star. In an endearing reply to his soon to be father-in-law, Shaheen wrote: “Thanks Lala for your prayers.” In Pakistan, young, old or even for son-in-law designate, Shahid Afridi was Lala.

The two had a face-off in the 2018 Pakistan Super League. In the death over, Shaheen, as is the convention, was hit for a six by Lala. Shaheen hit back by knocking over the senior batsman’s middle stump with a searing yorker. Shaheen, probably for a second before starting his celebration, gathered himself. He was embarrassed, almost apologetic to take the wicket. The young Afridi’s confusion was understandable. Shaheen kept shaking his head, Pakistan let out a loud collective ‘Aww’.

This has been a common sight at most PSL games. This season Azam Khan, former Pakistan wicket-keeper Moin Khan’s son and a reputed six-hitter, took Afridi senior to the cleaners. After a scoring sequence of 6, 2, 6, 6, Azam folded his hands to show his reverence to the legend of the game. “Pardon me, but I can’t help but hit a six,” he seemed to be saying.

For Afridi Jr and Azam, and others from their generation, Lala was the superhero they grew up idolising. They prayed for his sixes, they crossed their fingers whenever Lala swung his bat. Lala in a T20 game is still a prize scalp but the sight of his shattered stumps triggers childhood trauma in these 20 plus cricketers.

In the years ahead, Shaheen, a PSL captain and key player for Babar Azam’s Naya Pakistan cricket team, is trying to fill the Afridi void. The other day, he told a reporter who had travelled to his home. “I try to hit the ball like Lala but I can’t,” he says. Afridis are known to hit sixes, Shaheen feels incomplete since he isn’t a six-hitter.

This was before last year’s World T20. Shaheen now is a megastar. His wickets of KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma gave Pakistan that rare ICC event win over India. He wouldn’t have to pay for a meal in Pakistan ever.

Later in the tournament, he bowled a disappointing over against Australia and Pakistan lost the semi-final that had seemed to be in their pocket. This was classic Afridi, this hero-villian-hero toggle. But Pakistan seemed to be warming up to Shaheen. For those two vital wickets, they were in a mood to indulge him. They saw a bit of Lala in this Afridi too.

In one of those very popular Eid specials on Pakistan television, Lala was asked about his favourite song. After much thought the daredevil batsman opted for the one from Feroz Khan starrer Janbaaz. “Har kisiko nahin milta yahan pyar,” he says. In the sub-continent’s brutal world of fickle fans, only the lucky few get unconditional love.

PS: He says he will continue playing Kashmir Premier League and T20 cricket.

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