Shahid Afridi: Born to lead

Shahid Afridi edged the first two balls that he faced, completely missed the third, dispatched the fourth beyond the brick fencing, was dropped off the fifth, before being cleaned up during the sixth. And within the space of an over-length at the PCA Stadium on Monday, Afridi had replayed his entire batting career in fast forward. The show didn't continue for long, but Afridi managed to put on vivid display a microcosmic version of a 15-year stint with the bat with hits, misses, thrills and spills lasting about four minutes. His bowling, though, took a little longer to fail.

Those terrific leg-breaks that have mesmerised many a batsman this World Cup didn't turn, and the much spoken about in-drift didn't drift. Afridi resorted to violent pace, as he often does, only to be hammered by his batsmen. But his smile refused to fade, as the third and the most important role that he has been playing these days couldn't be bound by time, or disappointments.

Squatting near the fancy PCA pavilion, coaches Waqar Younis and Aaquib Javed bobbed their heads as Afridi discussed strategies. On the field, Asad Shafiq and Abdur Rehman stretched themselves to the limit, nodding as Afridi shouted advice, blushing when he heaped lavish praise. Planted on the centre square, seniors Younis Khan and Misbah-Ul-Haq, seemed to agree, as Afridi unraveled the secrets of the Mohali pitch. Suddenly, just like the nodding, everything in Team Pakistan was in complete sync, with Shahid Khan Afridi at the helm of affairs.

Ever since he made his debut in 1996, cricket pundits have found it near impossible to bracket Afridi's contributions, wondering whether he is a pure batsman, specialist bowler, batting all-rounder or a bowler who can bat a bit. During the course of this World Cup, though, Afridi has proven that all of the above are false for his real gift lies in being a leader, a ringmaster. Having revealed his truest identity, Captain Afridi has knitted the team together, inspiring every member to collectively walk down the paths of glory.

Past Pakistan captains have been known to pull their talented yet undisciplined squads under one banner by raising their personal performances. Javed Miandad and Inzamam-ul Haq did it with the bat, Wasim Akram led with the ball, Imran Khan with both. With Afridi, however, it's hardly ever by example. Even though he leads the wickets tally with 21 scalps during this Cup, Afridi has put his dominating and zingy personality to command respect from all quarters.

When a young Afridi failed with the bat, he resorted to saving his place with the ball. When the ball didn't sing, the bat somehow composed merry tunes. Even when both failed simultaneously, Afridi somehow kept his place, commanding his teammates' respect. That was only because his personality on and off the field remained a constant among every other variable, something that could lift the morale of the team all by itself.

Dressing room democracy

With an attitude like Afridi's, the transition was silky smooth, but how did he deal with all that infamous infighting that plagued the team all of last year? With Afridi's aura, it's hard to be an insecure captain. In Pakistan's earlier cricketing dictatorship culture, the captain spoke during the team meeting and everyone else listened. The 31-year old gave a voice to those who had been kept silent for far too long. Under the democratic Afridi regime, the captain speaks, and also listens. Just ask the bad-turned-good former captains in the current side.

Misbah claims that the ego problems have finally ended. "Afridi has our full support. No one is fighting anymore. He listens to everyone from the juniors to the support staff, and of course, seniors and past captains like Younis and myself," Misbah says. And he isn't lying. Right through the course of this tournament, Afridi can be seen consulting his fellow players while changing a field. Sometimes, like during the quarterfinals against the West Indies in Dhaka, he takes a backseat, allowing Younis and Misbah to make the adjustments in tandem. The formula is simple, Afridi is happy that everyone is pulling their weight, and Pakistan is happy that he is leading them to wins.

Those close to him say, "even the elders parents and older relatives in Afridi's household are scared of him. And that means respect in Pakistan". "Would anyone else have dared to back Kamran Akmal?"

Despite dropping Ross Taylor a few times against New Zealand - butter fingers that cost them the match Akmal found undying support in Afridi. The captain's backing meant the team stood by him, and Akmal responded with a good pair of hands to beat Australia, before scoring an unbeaten 47 in the quarters against the West Indies.

Afridi has had a lightning-rod effect on the team insulating his players from the criticism, while channelising the controversies into performance-driven wins. Fast bowler Umar Gul explains. "We saw a lot of bad times in the past six months, from spot fixing to infighting. The pressure on us to deliver was more than any India vs Pakistan match could ever be. But under Afridi, we have united, and become disciplined. He ensured that we stuck together, and that was important."

Pulling his team into a huddle, Afridi culminated practice on Monday with a word of advice to each of his players. It wasn't the advice that was important, but the very nature of the huddle itself. Unlike the shoulder-link-shoulder huddle, this one was a disjointed version with Afridi at the centre of the circle, and everyone's undivided attention. Just as his ego demands. The batting may fail and the bowling may not click, but Afridi has forever replaced his flawed all-rounder's tag with the label of a flawless, inspirational leader.

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