Shahid Afridi - The time traveller

Shahid Afridi was not just another player, he was a time-traveller from the future. 

Shahid Afridi - The time traveller

October 1996. Pakistan were playing world champions Sri Lanka in Nairobi in the KCA Centenary Tournament. Shahid Afridi walked out to bat at number three, for the first time in international cricket. 

He was up against a bowling attack of Chaminda Vaas, Sajeewa de Silva, Muthiah Muralidaran, Kumar Dharmasena, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva. It would be a challenge for anyone, let alone a player in their first international innings. 

What happened next changed everything. He batted like a demon, like nothing we had ever seen before. When the Sri Lankans were able to stand back up, they saw he’d finished with a score of 102 from 40 balls. His century came in 37 balls. There were 11 sixes and 6 fours.

If you watched the most recent IPL, you may be thinking what is the big deal. Well, the scoring rate in ODIs in 1996 was 4.63. He scored at 15 runs per over in his knock. This innings wasn’t even in the realms of possibility at the time.

Before this carnage, Jayasuriya held the record for the fastest ODI century, and was the quickest-scoring batter in the world. Afridi broke his record by 11 balls. He took 30 deliveries fewer than Basit Ali, who held the record for Pakistan. Just to give you an idea his century took 24% less time than the next best. The modern-day equivalent would be someone scoring a 100 of 24 balls to break AB de Villiers' record.

Shahid Afridi was not just another player, he was a time-traveller from the future. 

Before we talk about Shahid Afridi the T20 cricketer, it is important to look back at him as an ODI cricketer to understand what he was. If there’s one pattern you can notice, it’s that the man doesn’t know how to bat within himself. In his best years, he regularly had a true strike rate of over 40. His lowest true strike rate in a calendar year was slightly below 14. 

This isn’t normal. For example, AB de Villiers had that one year (2015) where he had an insane strike rate. Afridi’s entire career is that. For years, we laughed at him because of his inconsistency and the fact he didn’t make as many runs as proper batters. But now with metrics like true values, we can see just how special he was. He was really playing T20 cricket, in ODIs, before T20 existed. 

Afridi was well above par on both true economy rate as well as true wickets in five calendar years. If we consider only the true economy rate, it was better than 0.2 nine times. He was close to being a par bowler in 2000, 2010 & 2012. He was negative on both true economy rate and true wickets per 10 overs only twice. You would take these returns from a legspinner over a career that spanned across almost two decades even without considering the batting value.

Cricket has had players like Victor Trumper and Viv Richards ahead of their time before. Afridi is on their level. 

We have talked about his batting, but even as a bowler, he was ahead of the curve. He bowled quick wristspin, which is something that inspired Rashid Khan – one of the most valuable T20 players in the globe at present.

Shahid Afridi was a T20 great before we started understanding the format.

The allrounder batted everywhere in the top 8, although he's done most of his work at number five, six and seven. The fact that he could slot in anywhere meant that he gave his teams a lot more flexibility.

But in terms of raw numbers, he was at his best as an opener. However, he did not play a lot of innings at the top. Looking at how the Narines, Heads, and Fraser-McGurks of the world are able to create an impact by going hard from ball one, it is another role he could have performed at his best in modern-day T20. There is no way to set a field to Afridi in the powerplay. 

Afridi was a way better batter than Sunil Narine. After all, he averaged 36.5 at a strike rate of 87 in Tests – while playing 50% of his innings as an opener, which is a bizarre thing to think about looking back. Narine was a tailender who has been an infrequent handy hitter. Afridi has five test hundreds in 27 matches. He would have been a better Narine than Narine. 

He was the main man in the first two editions of the Men’s T20 World Cup. He won the MVP in 2007 and had a great case for winning it in 2009, when Pakistan won their first global title since 1992.

In fact, the only T20 World Cup where he had a negative true strike rate was in 2010. He was above par on both true average and true strike in 2009, 2014 & even in 2016 when he was 36 years old. And 2014 and 2016 were T20 World Cups where he wasn’t near his peak. 

But he was not just a bits and pieces all-rounder. He was a frontline bowler and an elite one at that. If we have to draw a parallel, his value with the ball was equivalent to that of peak Rashid in the first two editions.

Since then, he was net positive on both true wickets as well as true economy rate in only 2014. But 2016 was the only season when he conceded more runs than expected.

Afridi played T20 cricket worldwide, but the franchise tournament in which he featured the most was the PSL.

Despite the fact that those were the last few years of his career, he was still a plus in terms of true economy in five seasons. In terms of wicket-taking, he was negative in only 2017.

But by then, he was well past his prime with the bat. He had one great year in 2017, and was a net positive in 2020. But he was on the wrong side of the quadrant only once in 2019, and he still had a positive true strike rate in 2016 & 2018.

A six-hitting finisher in the death overs. An opener who could smash from ball one. An economical wicket-taker in the middle overs who could also bowl in other phases. The iconic celebration. Afridi was all this, and more – in just one player.

But I want to show all the Afridi innings in T20. Because there is something fun here. So his first ever 50 in the format is 2009, not some random franchise, but in the World Cup semi-final. He makes his second 50 in the following game, winning Pakistan a World Cup. 

There is more here, he doesn’t start playing until 2004, but the first time he plays more than 10 matches is 2010. So he is 14 years into his career when he starts to take this format of the game seriously, despite the fact he was playing it in ODIs for years. 

This means that he is well past his prime when T20 is taking over. Yet, from 2010 until the end of 2017, he played 212 matches, averaging 19 and a strike rate of 157. That was Afridi not at his best. I know this because in 2017, I watched him play in the Blast. 

I was there, in Derby, with a thousand other people watching the man who was a T20 player before it existed, score his first hundred in the format 13 years after his debut. It was scratchy and mad, but ultimately, it was Afridi. 

In that innings, he made his 101 runs from 43 balls. So that means his only T20 hundred was slower than his first ODI innings. 

England invented T20 cricket in 2003, Afridi clocked it before it even existed.