Saturday, 9 January 2010

Boom Boom's rockin' the Big Bash

Shahid Afridi is making a big impression Down Under. While Pakistan's Test side have been finding amazing new ways of losing matches, the man they call "Boom Boom" has been rocking the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash, Australia's domestic 20-over competition.

Television viewers in Australia have just voted Afridi the Big Bash's number one overseas import. This year's tournament has drawn record crowds and television ratings over the festive period, despite clashing with the Boxing Day and New Year Tests. With Australia's top international players unavailable due to the latter, it's been left to the state teams' overseas players to bring a touch of star quality to the event. Dwayne Bravo, Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard are among those who have shone but Afridi has thus far eclipsed them all.

The Pakistani allrounder has picked up two man-of-the-match awards in three games and his team - the South Australia Redbacks - are in pole position to qualify for the final. He has only managed one entertaining cameo with the bat but has been consistently effective with the ball, intelligently bowling slower than usual to make use of the extra bounce and grip on offer, and combining leg-breaks to right-handed batsmen with orthodox off-breaks to lefties.

All this is further evidence of the new-found maturity that has already led to the 29-year-old's appointment as Pakistan's Twenty20 Captain. It's tempting to say Twenty20 cricket and Shahid Afridi are tailor-made for each other: a brief period of power-hitting or an economical spell of spin is all that is required to decide the result of a contest, and on any given day, Afridi could provide either or both. Such an assessment would be totally unfair, however, both to Twenty20 and to Afridi. The game is far more than a hit-and-giggle slog-fest, and the thing about Boom Boom these days is that he rarely seems to go bust.

At the first ICC World Twenty20, Afridi was named the Player of the Tournament for his exploits with the ball. At the second, in England last year, he started quietly but then finished with a bang, scoring match-winning fifties in both the semi-final and final. Thereafter, he has celebrated becoming Pakistan Captain by winning another man-of-the-match award in a one-off T20I against Sri Lanka in Colombo and a man-of-the-series award in a two match rubber against New Zealand in Dubai.

Consequently, he is a man much in demand, with South Australia by no means the only domestic side interested in his talents. Hampshire have just secured his services for their Friends Provident T20 campaign this summer and until it became clear that he would be on international duty in February, the Nashua Dolphins looked set to sign him for the upcoming Standard Bank Pro20 in South Africa. It would be a massive surprise if he didn't get snapped up at this year's IPL auction on January 19th, now that Pakistani players have been cleared to participate in the tournament once again.

Cricket pundits have mumbled and grumbled of late about the dangers of the emergence of "freelance cricketers." Since Andrew Flintoff chose to turn down an ECB contract after retiring from Test cricket, there has been speculation that he intends to peddle his wares in Twenty20 competitions around the world. Flintoff's agent, Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, appears keen to see his client become cricket's first globe-trotting gun for hire. If you ask me, Afridi could easily beat Flintoff to it.

But I don't think he wants to do that. Afridi's availability for competitions like the Big Bash has been due to the paucity of Pakistan's international commitments and his omission from their Test side. He has made clear that he would prefer to spend more of his time playing for his country. With a bit of luck, he may get his wish. Given Mohammad Yousuf's wretched showing in Australia and the ongoing saga surrounding Younis Khan, it is not inconceivable that Afridi will return to Pakistan's Test side as its captain. His next appearance at Lord's, the scene of his Twenty20 heroics last summer, could come against Australia, in the ground's first neutral Test match for 98 years. Improbable, perhaps, but stranger things have happened in Pakistani cricket.

For the moment, Afridi is busy entertaining the crowds Down Under, both on and off the field. He attempted to launch the very first ball he faced in the Big Bash out of the ground for six, but succeeded only in skying the full toss to long on for a golden duck. After responding with a match-winning spell of 4 for 19, he could afford to joke about his dismissal: "When I saw the ball coming in the air, I thought I'd go for a home run but I didn't get one."

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