Leading from the front - Salman Ahmad - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=38887&Cat=9

It was a warm, breezy evening in Karachi back in the summer of ‘96. I was leaving the Pearl-Continental Hotel after a concert when a young teenager came up and introduced himself as a “Junooni.” He was fair-skinned, clean-shaven, with an intense look in his eyes that oozed passion and charisma. I asked him his name and he confidently replied “Shahid Afridi.”

He also told me that he was a leg spinner who had been selected to play for Pakistan under-19s. I promised that I would look forward to seeing him perform soon.

The year 1996 was the same year the World Cup had come to the subcontinent and Pakistan, trying for a second successive WC title, had been cruelly knocked out in the quarter-finals by India at Bangalore.

The next time I saw Afridi was on television only a few months later, in October. He announced his arrival to the world by scoring the fastest ODI century in his first international innings in Nairobi.

During that explosive display of clean hitting against the ‘96 world champions, Sri Lanka, he completely demolished the opposition which included perhaps the best off-spinner of modern times, Muttiah Murlitharan. I knew then that Afridi had the potential for greatness right from the get go.

We got to know each other well over time, played cricket together to help charities and always enjoyed a joke and a laugh.

But last September in England, I bumped into a much subdued Afridi at a Pak flood relief event in London. This time, instead of his usual mischievous smile and powerful handshake, Afridi’s eyes betrayed a deep hurt and frustration. He was very upset by the spot-fixing scandals that had erupted around the Pakistan team and thrown it into a self-inflicted crisis.

In Chinese, crisis implies both danger and opportunity. Following that disastrous and demoralising summer tour, a new Test captain, Misbahul Haq, was announced to replace the tainted Salman Butt. Initially, the news was greeted by a large groan of disappointment from millions of disillusioned fans.

To many people, Misbah was an aging cricketer being handed over somebody else’s mess to go and battle against one of the world’s toughest teams, South Africa, followed by a tough tour to New Zealand. Men of lesser character would’ve lacked the courage to accept this trial by fire, but Misbah is a man who relishes a crisis. He grasped the opportunity with both hands and came through with flying colours in both the Test matches and the ODI’s. If there ever was a Pakistani odd couple it is Misbah and Afridi.

Where Shahid is flamboyant and instinctive, Misbah is stoic and thoughtful. Afridi, after dismissing an opponent, points both hands toward the heavens but, come what may, Misbah’s feet are always anchored to the earth.

They are the main creative engine which makes this Pakistani team so vital, exciting and entertaining to watch. Both also symbolise the contradictions and complexity of Pakistani society. A society which is under grave threat from the extremists. Unlike the violence on the street and the shouting matches and scream-fests that are a daily feature of Pakistan news channels, these two cricketers have managed to find an elusive harmony among the noise and discord of Pakistan.

The proof of their positive chemistry lies in the three straight wins that Pakistan has achieved thus far in the World Cup despite a bumpy ride. Each match has been dominated by Afridi’s fiery flair and flamboyance but without Misbah’s calm and collected sheet-anchor role none of these victories would’ve been possible.

Afridi is the leading bowler in the tournament while Misbah is the leading run scorer for Pakistan. Not just in this World Cup but ever since he became Test captain last year. Both men in their own ways are inspirational leaders and both are determined to regain the respect and dignity of Pakistan cricket. Against the Windies, Afridi was again on fire, bowling his side to a possible semi-final berth and another magical performance.

Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Misbah and Afridi are on their way to test that theory out for Pakistan.

The writer is a musician and a UN ambassador.

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