Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Shahid Afridi, The Leg Spinner

Last Sunday, Sharjah hosted its first international game after 8 years. For most watching it, to have expected anything less than a maniacal Pakistani win was like deluding yourself of the legacy the venue possessed for Pakistan cricket. Yet, there were moments in both innings that suggested otherwise, but Shahid Afridi ended up being the prime difference between both sides, bossing an ODI like very few have in modern times – half of it on one knee – putting the match in a state of entropy, enabling a series win and eventually redeeming the Pakistani pride at Sharjah.

The fact that Afridi played an uncharacteristic, tail-farming and perfectly paced innings earlier in the day, to set up a modest total was legitimately surprising to many, since runs from his bat have been a rarity lately; and to have done it with such a methodological approach was heartening for his fans. However, turning the game on its head later on when Sri Lanka were cruising and taking a five-fer would not have quite amazed those who have been following his bowling progress since the past few years, he’s produced match winning spells regularly.

A quick stats check tells he has been the best spinner in ODIs this year, which includes being the joint highest wicket taker in the World Cup, and that tells a lot about his surge as a bowler considering he bowls often in tandem with Saeed Ajmal, someone who’s been equally impressive in the striking rate column.
Leading wicket takers (spin bowlers) in 2011

Overall, he’s the joint second leading wicket taker in the year, only bettered by Lasith Malinga.

Leading wicket takers in 2011

During the course of this study of Shahid Afridi, we shall extract other features of his renaissance as a match winning bowler, but there is a feeling that a question is bound to arise in the minds of many that did he really have it in him to be so effective?

Test Cricket

For someone who took a five wicket haul in the very first innings of his Test debut against the then-mighty Aussies, there always was an extent of promise hidden somewhere. But over the years, it never could be quite fulfilled. The almighty whammies, across-the-line hoicks and cow-corner slogs would dominate a career which initially started as a leg spin bowler selected to replace Mushtaq Ahmed; a selection that was as contrasting in the genre as it would be to listen to Cannibal Corpse after Phil Collins on your iPod.
It would be tough to argue that there weren’t patches in his bowling career that would be no less than awe-inducing. Glimpses of brilliance would be on show every once in a while, whether it be Bangalore, where a probing and artistic Test spell against the world’s best players of spin in their own backyard would puzzle Pakistanis of what could be achieved with that arm and fingers, or his longest spell (overs wise) at Faisalabad. But maybe, as was decided by his periodical retirements, the exhibition of his bowling aptitude was not meant for Test cricket, after all.

It may be a mere hypothesis here, supported by an odd interview of his, that with the birth of T20 on international stage, Afridi’s focus on bowling had a revamp. For a cricketer like him, who was destined to be the protagonist of the shortest playing format, this was perhaps the career crossroads where he hit the realization that his value to his team could increase manifold if he would return decent figures in the allotted quote of 4 overs.

And so he started doing exactly that. With an odd knock of 30 or 40, there were not many significant batting performances to boast about, but the consistent stints with the ball made sure he was a reliable bowling option for his team, often coming on as first change. Within just one year of the introduction of T20s, he ended up being the player of the first T20 World Cup, mainly for 12 wickets in 7 matches.

He’s had a number of match defining spells in the format already but perhaps the most crucial one came in the semi-final of the 2009 World Cup. Buoyed by an against-all-odd half century earlier and brought on as first change by Younis Khan, he sliced South Africa in half by going through the defences of Gibbs and De Villiers in consecutive overs with his top spin and slider. It was enough to take Pakistan to the final where he produced another clinical all-round performance. Those were two consecutive man-of-the-match gems and if it wasn’t for Dilshan’s dream run with the bat, Afridi would have been the player of the tournament once again.

As of now, he is the highest wicket taker in T20 internationals and the first one to get to 50 wickets. The economy is just a touch above 6 which, for this lunatic format, is nothing less than outstanding.  Though a 4-fer is not a regular occurrence in T20, yet he has bagged 3 of them.

Leading wicket takers in T20 Internationals

One Day Internationals

However, it’s his resurgence as an ODI bowler that has had more impact than any other bowler on Pakistan’s performance in the past four years. He is the only Pakistani bowler to have taken more than 100 wickets during that period (115, to be exact), at an average and economy which have been considerably lower than his career’s aggregate.

Furthermore, it is his role as a fulcrum on which ODIs won by Pakistan during this period have centered, which give way to some extremely impressive numbers.

Shahid Afridi in ODIs won by Pakistan since 01 January 2008

The significance of his bowling can also be judged by his numbers in the matches that Pakistan has won in his whole 15 year limited overs career. With an average and strike rates which are two-thirds of his overall career, it’s safe to say he’s been the cornerstone of Pakistan’s ODI victories in this period. 73% of his career wickets have come in matches Pakistan have won, with all of his 4-fers and 5-fers coming in these matches.

Shahid Afridi in ODIs won by Pakistan throughout his career

Another remarkable feature of Afridi’s bowling accomplishments is his presence in the top three ODI wicket takers in the last three and a half years.

Leading wicket takers in ODIs since 01 April 2008

To ascertain how crucial Afridi has been whenever Pakistan has defended a total successfully, his stats in this criterion, which are in stark contrast to his overall numbers, should be proof enough.

Shahid Afridi in ODIs Pakistan has won defending a target (fielding second)

Perhaps one of the best gauges of his bowling proficiency is his numbers in the following table, which classifies the stats of all leading spin bowlers since April 2009.

Leading spin bowlers in ODIs since 01 April 2009

The Craft

All these brilliant numbers aside, the variations in Afridi’s bowling are as fascinating and skilled as they come in the modern game. There is the conventional loopy leg spin, which though may not be Warnesque but does enough to create doubt in the batsman’s mind whether to play against the line or just play it safe by smothering its turn. It has become more his stock delivery with the skilful usage of the crease, going wide of it at times and closer-to-stumps occasionally. Then there is the cleverly disguised googly which, initially in his career, started with a visible off spin roll but now has been mastered into the back-of-the-hand wrong ‘un. An extension of his wrong ‘un is the quicker off spin which he drops in mostly for left-handers and to newly in batsmen, primarily to create doubt against his conventional fast leg breaks. Then the main weapon: the top spinner - capable of achieving different bouncing angles even after pitching on the same spot for separate deliveries – is so cunningly employed that even the best in the business have fallen prey to it. At times, it could be seen as a hybrid of a slider and a flipper, something you can figure he himself too is not sure about.

This assortment would make for quite a repertoire for any spinner but for Afridi, it doesn't end here. There is the globally famous faster one, also called ‘shooter’ by him and common in gully cricketing terms. The history of this weapon dates back to his initial spells in limited overs cricket, with the one cleaning up Gregg Blewett in the Carlton & United Series, 1996-97 making headlines. The speed gun usually measures this missile in a range of higher 120 kph to mid 130 kph, enough to check on the best fast medium bowlers in the game.

Moreover, alongside these variations the spin bowling basics are focused on constantly, with the speed as fluctuating as the English weather and the float often present. Add to it, the guile and the vicious in-drift which, when in full rhythm, make for a potentially mesmerizing art. The prodding and fiddling of the batsmen is often witnessed, tying them down with a set pattern of deliveries and making his field settings count with regularity. It would be injustice to him if no mention of his follow through is done, which is as aggressive as it gets to being a fast bowler of the current era.
There may always remains a mousy feeling among his fans that, with the precocious talent he possesses, he could have achieved so much more than what he has in his 15 years in the game, but for what he has accomplished so far and for what his aura circumscribes, he remains as the most loved sportsman of his country and a superstar capable of filling stadiums on his own anywhere the game is played.

Shahid Afridi feeds on the crowd and the adrenaline that is generated in the stands for him, epitomized by his x-man wicket celebration with both his arms aloft. With his bowling maturing and reshaping his career, we are well into the second coming of the mercurial pathan, this time as a bona fide leg spinner. Afridi, the bowler has made himself noticed in the recent years and there can be no denying that he is one of the main game-changers with the ball in hand in the game presently.

- This post was first published at The Sight Screen.


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