Afridi joins the party thrown for him

The Pathan and Pakistan are as unpredictable, and talented, as ever.

Taking it Forward: Afridi celebrates a wicket with skipper Mohammad Hafeez and Umran Akmal.

Since Shahid Afridi exploded on to the scene in 1996, there have been hundreds of calls for him to curb his playing style to suit the match and the team’s needs. Play yourself in, they said.  Play straight. Play along the ground. Rotate the strike. 

Eventually, the voices went away. Not because the advice was heeded, but because Afridi could not change his spots.  He is hardwired to be a certain beast, and that’s all he can be.  Pleading and expecting a change is the very definition of insanity.  The emergence of T20I cricket a decade into Afridi’s career had many wondering if perhaps he was just born a little too early, and that the sport he was born to play was not cricket, but T20 cricket.

Afridi has not delivered on his promise in the format, scoring just four half-centuries - three of them consecutively in the middle of 2009.  His most recent effort against Sri Lanka produced an unbeaten 52 from 33 deliveries, the fastest 50 in the format from a man who once, as a boy, scored 102 ODI runs needing only four more deliveries.  For some reason, Afridi has shifted focus to become a bowling allrounder when as a rule, multi-dimensional cricketers rely more on their contributions with the bat in their twilight.

It is too late in Afridi’s career to place extra significance on one particular performance as a barometer of his growth or understanding of the game.  His list of failures is far longer than his list of successes, but the majority of fans are kind enough to dwell on the latter.  We know nothing about how he will tackle the Sri Lanka attack in the next game or if he will be able to read Thisara Perera as well as he did when he crashed 23 from the seamer’s nine deliveries on Sunday night.

Pakistan - World-Class Defenders

If one thing changed Pakistan’s attitude and approach from the first T20I, where they seemed a confused and ragged bunch, to the second where they showed more composure and class, it is that they went from chasing a target to defending one.

No side in world cricket relies so much on its bowling as Pakistan, and no side has so much confidence in its bowlers to do something special from over to over. In Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal, the team has perhaps the most varied T20 attack in the world, and this reliance on bowling has always yielded results -  whenever Pakistan is defending a total. 

As a chasing team in T20s, Pakistan is mediocre team, with 12 wins, 11 losses and a tie.  Ask them to defend a total, and they have 21 wins against 10 losses.  Talent cannot explain this vast gulf.  It must be psychological, and hence it ought to be correctable. 

Pakistan have a team that can be reliably dominant, or reliably middling.  They possess the ability to be consistent world-beaters right now, but that may not be the case in the future.  Historians will look back at this stretch of Pakistan’s play and lament the huge missed opportunity where they could have been the most feared and ruthless opponent in the format.