All Hail Shaheen, Prince of the New Ball, Knight of the Three Approaches, and Bringer of Chaos
Shaheen Shah Afridi was the Man of the Series in the Test matches against West Indies, with 18 wickets @ 11.3.
Shaheen Shah Afridi looks lost. The opposition is a mere fifty runs away from victory but Shaheen knows this is their final pair, only bowlers to follow after this. He runs in, tries to bowl in the channel like he is told to. He tries going around the wicket and looks pedestrian. He tries bowling yorkers but nothing is working. The ball refuses to bend to his will, and the pitch is starting to feel like one of those roads he spent his childhood playing on. Six balls of experiments pass, he collects his cap from the umpire and trudges back to his fielding position. Dejected, with a feeling of helplessness as the match continues to slip from his and his team’s grasp.
Over a year later, the opposition is less than fifty runs from victory. Shaheen begins the over in his comfort zone, over the wicket. Six runs are scored in seven balls. The batsmen are comfortable leaving the ball outside off. Shaheen adapts; he switches to around the wicket. He induces a false shot on the second ball but no edge. On the fourth ball, it is edged but dropped. Another over of plays and misses follows. He gets frustrated and switches to over the wicket. Next over, he has a word with the senior pro and comes around again. Fourth ball in, the edge is induced, and the catch is taken!
There are two wickets left, and he will not let it slip this time. On the first ball of the next over, Shaheen does what he didn’t do a year ago. He bowls a well-directed short ball. The batsman’s eyes light up. He goes for it, top edges. Shaheen smiles as the ball loops to square leg. At last, he will bury the ghosts. At last, he will show he is more than a kid who can swing the new ball. Square leg shells it, and the batsman survives and takes his team to victory. Not the fairytale finish one would want, but Shaheen has shown he will no longer be a bystander.
The new ball has always bent itself to Shaheen’s will. The near parabolic curve he creates when he comes over the wicket is enchanting. Combine that with the wrist snap at the start; at that point, even the ever-increasing threats from your mother couldn’t convince you to turn off the TV. Despite enduring a tough 2020, you knew never to worry about his new ball value; it’s called having eyes. But it would’ve been justified to worry about what happens after the first 20 overs are up, and the ball has lost its shine. The ball that once was a willing enabler of art becomes as stubborn as a few former Pakistan captains.
Shaheen landed in West Indies with plans and an attack in which, at long last, he was finally the youngest bowler. It is often said that cricket is an individual sport masquerading as a team one; Kartikeya Date disagrees and has concluded that that notion has been so popularized that the opposite is actually true: Cricket is a team sport masquerading as an individual one. Shaheen was finally part of an attack where he did not feel like the sole spearhead. He was part of an attack that wouldn’t leak runs from the other end, forcing him to try and bowl metronomic lines. He could go a little wild and enjoy some of the freedom that the youngest member of an attack is allowed.
But of course, that freedom is wasted if nothing comes off it. And that’s where the plans part comes in. He had near perfected his original approach; the classic left-armer over the wicket to the right-hander ploy. Take it away, take it away, take it away, and then bang! Bring it in, knock the poles over, next batsman, please. Repeat vice versa with the left-hander. Easy. There is the small case of 99.9% of the people in the world not being able to replicate even a measure of that.
Shaheen has not been afraid of coming around the wicket, even in the early parts of his Test career. But the version of him that comes around has always felt a pale interpretation of the demigod that comes from over the wicket. In this series, it was a definite strategy and not just an attempt to try everything in search of an elusive wicket.
|Shaheen Around the Wicket to Right Handers (Overs 20-80)
|140+ km/h balls
|146.5 (fastest of the series)
Shaheen also finally realized that being 6ft 5in and being able to bowl 140+, he should probably bang it into the pitch more often than he does. It was a consistent strategy he used, even with the new ball. The most classic example is his dismissal of Kraigg Brathwaite in the first innings of the second Test. He first pushed Brathwaite back with a shorter one directed at his body which nearly looped off his gloves to short leg, and then followed it up with his classic in-swinging full delivery, which is hard enough to play when you’re ready for it, let alone when you are considering the attempt on your life a ball ago.
It is an approach he used even more so with the older ball, especially with the around the wicket angle. It would have been a strategy that would’ve won Pakistan the series if Hasan Ali had been a bit more alert. We may never be able to grasp how incredible it is that a twenty-one-year-old was Pakistan’s battering ram with the new ball but ALSO their enforcer with the old ball. When Pakistan was down, when Pakistan was tested, Shaheen Shah Afridi would find a way to bring them back into the game. His final magic trick of the series may have been the Mayers dismissal. Such was the command he imposed in the series, it would only be half-crazy to think that he made a deal with the rain that it can fall after he has broken West Indies’ last recognized batting stand and their final chance at a draw.
Shaheen Shah Afridi’s Lengths in Overs 20-80
|Back of a length/Short
Obviously, there should be a tempering of expectations. This was a 6ft 5in pacer with the capability to swing it both ways at 140+ km/h bowling to one of the weakest batting lineups in Test cricket in the most assistive conditions for fast bowling in the world. But we can be pleased with what we see, and it will give him confidence in his two new approaches.
Shaheen Shah Afridi is no longer a bystander to chaos. He brings it with him, as he was always destined to do.