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A team of 11 Afridis

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Boom is what you say after a punchline. Too often Shahid Afridi is that punchline.

His exploits, his demeanour, his consistency, his style of play, all of it, one big joke, one long joke. Even his fans are called Afridiots. His career has been occasional sharp intakes of air surrounded by wall-to-wall laughter. He is beyond parody.

To cricket fans he can mean anything. To traditionalists he is a sloggy bore. To an ODI fan, an occasional star. To the T20 generation, the grandfather of slog. To a Pakistani fan, well, just about anything, or nothing, and anything, and nothing, from one moment to the next.

But to one country he is so much more. In Afghanistan, he isn't a joke, he is a hero. He is the reason many of them played in the first place.

Cricket is a family heirloom; it is passed down by family members. There are some, if they have great luck, who won at life by finding it on their own. For young Afghan kids who left their country after the Soviet invasion, they found it a different way. They found it via Pakistan, and more specifically, via the 1992 World Cup win. Imran Khan and his cornered tigers were as much their team as that of anyone from Pakistan. Because as law 175.c of cricket states, you cannot watch a Pakistani team in full flow, or in full collapse, and not be smitten.

One look at Aaqib Javed, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram was all it took for Afghanistan to be a Pakistan cricket fan.

While the formal English-drawn boundaries in this area meant that young Afghans grew up in Pakistan in refugee camps, technically as Pashtun Afghans they were still in their traditional heartland of Pashtunistan. Which means that on both sides of the border there were speakers of Pashto. One of them, born in the Pashtunistan region on the Pakistan side, was Shahid Afridi.

Late in 1996, a 16-year-old Pakistani batted for the first time. He probably wasn't 16. It couldn't have mattered less. What mattered was the carnage, the injury to bowlers, the freedom of his batting, the severity of his hitting. Less than an hour later he had broken a record for the quickest hundred runs in cricket. Shahid Afridi was something special.

There is a natural conservatism bred into batsmen. From a young age they know one bad decision can end their day. It breeds prudence in you. You protect your stumps, keep the ball on the ground and grab caution from the wind.

Shahid Afridi didn't do that. His way of batting was to throw everything he had at every ball, like a religious zealot, believing that something would save him, that destiny was on his side. It made him an inconsistent cricketer. It made him a hero to millions.

Afridi at the crease is more like an untrained puppy than a cricketer. His body is pulsing with energy, his every move is wild and free. At once he is bossing the world's best bowlers and also asking for you to love him. He has the spirit, energy and hair of a Pakistani fast bowler, but he also has a massive club that swings wildly. He's the greatest action movie star ever. And once you're hooked on Afridi, there is no going back. Everyone else is vanilla. He's a chocolate-chipped robot rainbow from the future.

To young Afghan boys in those refugee camps, Afridi is something even more. He's Pashtun. One of them. When he spoke Pashto, in a beautiful sing-song dialect alien to their ears, they loved him even more. Afridi's nickname among his team-mates is Lala, which has many meanings, one of which is a name given to a Pashtun in Pakistan. He wasn't just Pakistan's Shahid Afridi from then on, he was the Afghanistan's Shahid Afridi.

Shahid Afridi comes from the Afridi tribe of Pashtuns. A tribe the English once described as warlike. A tribe that Khushal Khattak, the legendary warrior poet, wrote about. They fought off people in their part of the mountains. They were a proud clan.

Against the Associates, whom they bully, Afghanistan are different. For other teams in that position it would be about executing their skillsets, but the Afghan team can't do that. They get together on that cliff edge and have some controlled fun

Matiullah Abid is an Afghan journalist based in Washington DC. He works in radio for Voice of America. He travels around to watch the team as much as he can, and he has in many ways become their most trusted reporter.

He knows of the influence of Shahid Afridi, he has heard it from the players, from the fans. He knows it is because they share a history and a language. But that it is also deeper, more tribal. The instinct of the Afghan people is to be brave, to be bold, and to look good doing it. Whether it is Khushal Khattak, Imran Khan, Shahid Afridi, or the entire Afghan team today, you can see that. They are born entertainers. They want to hit the big shots, take the big wickets. They want to be adored.

Abid has also seen the influence. Not just in showmanship but in gestures. The legs splayed apart, the arms up in the air, the fingers pointing at the sky - that is how Shahid Afridi celebrates. Some cricket fans might mock Afridi for it, but that is how Rashid Khan celebrates.

It was in Bangladesh two years ago for this very same tournament when Ramiz Raja turned to Abid and said, "You know, in Pakistan we have one Shahid Afridi, you guys in Afghanistan have 11." Many have said something similar, even those who don't know the links. That's because the Afghan team is a team of Afridis.

In the World T20 Mohammad Shahzad has become a cult figure. It is his natural talent that made people notice him. It is the way he goes about his cricket with boundless enthusiasm, shows every emotion, attacks like a madman, and has a technique that he picked up off the streets of Pakistan that has made him loved. You don't need a map drawn here: attacks, madman, streets of Pakistan - you've seen the man who inspired him for 20 years.

Shahzad says MS Dhoni is his hero. That is who he wants to play like. He has copied his helicopter shot, he gets a selfie with him at every chance, he has even got a similar, if not rounder, body shape to Dhoni. But Shahzad shows more emotion in a camera flash than Dhoni has in seven years.

If Shahid Afridi was born again, and had a huge man crush on MS Dhoni, Shahzad is what you'd expect him to be. They may have many heroes, and over the last few years Afghanistan have evolved from a Shahid-only viewpoint, but they cannot change their cricketing DNA.

There is a way Afridi plays when he is in charge of a match. It's understated cockiness, a boldness on the tip of disaster. He's not in your face like an Australian, cold like a South African or regal like an Indian. It's something different. It's like under the surface he is still frantic, still full of worry, but he also knows that he's in charge. It's like being confident at the edge of a cliff face on a windy day.

Mohammad Shahzad: Dhoni and Boom Boom rolled into one© Getty Images

In that state he can land his legspinner anywhere he releases, his quicker ball is actually lightning, and when he bats he can dial up or down the Afridiness depending on the situation. It's not a state he is in often, but when he is, it's wonderful.

It is in this state that the Afghans play against the Associates. Against the bigger nations, where most fans have seen them, they are more nervous, prone to rashness and losing their minds. Against the Associates, whom they bully, they are different. They just believe more. For other teams in that position it would be about executing their skillsets, but the Afghan team can't do that. They get together on that cliff edge and have some controlled fun. They entertain while being in charge, they attack while staying professional. Not professional in the Monday-to-Friday accountant sense of the word, more the artist who can both inspire and meet a deadline while dressed in an unwashed dressing gown.

Watching Samiullah Shenwari's naked high-rope-walking against Scotland in last year's World Cup was the living embodiment of this. It was the perfect confident innings on a day when there was no right to be that confident, but he still believed it anyway.

Of course, if they do that like Afridi, you know what Afghanistan can do when the opposite happens. You know how frantic they are, how odd they can be when disaster is not an option but an inevitability. In all four of their games in the main part of the tournament they showed the fragile reality behind their confident front.

That can explode, they can implode, they can fall over, they can lay down, all within a few balls. And yet still, even after all that, in this tournament, their worst preferences didn't result in the sort of hidings that other Associates have taken. Sri Lanka beat them; they didn't destroy them. Their total against England was still largely just that one bad over they bowled away from winning. And even South Africa bowling them all out only gave them a 37-run defeat.

Maybe it helps to have a team of Afridis rather than one Afridi. As always in cricket, balance is the key.

To young Afghan boys in those refugee camps, Afridi is something even more. He's Pashtun. One of them. When he spoke Pashto, in a beautiful sing-song dialect alien to their ears, they loved him even more

For this tournament, their presence really mattered, not just for themselves. This was a big tournament for the Associate teams. They had received so much good press in the World Cup. There was a serious movement to include them more and more at coming events. What they needed was a strong showing at this World T20. Had they all fallen over, the closed-minded cricket fans and administrators who think cricket is a right you only get depending on your birthplace would have turned on them again.

It was that reason why William Porterfield was so determined to get his message across. Why Preston Mommsen was so upset at Harsha Bhogle's comments about Associates. It is why Peter Borren was in near tears that his team played a couple of bad overs and then had their dream washed away.

They knew they only had a week in the spotlight, when what they said would make news, and then they would fade away again.

Regardless of rain, Bangladesh would have always taken the one qualification spot in their group. In the other group it was more an open chance. Hong Kong had a small chance, Scotland a decent chance, and Zimbabwe and Afghanistan were the favourites. If Zimbabwe had gone through, it would have meant the group stages had ten Test nations and not one Associate. It would have been a disaster.

Scotland should have beaten Afghanistan in the World Cup, but they didn't. They then should have beaten them in this World T20, but again they didn't. The next game, Scotland lost to Zimbabwe and it became a straight shootout between the Test nation and the best Associate. It was never even close. The Afghans dominated the entire game. They were going through. It was what the Associates wanted.

Afghanistan are not as popular in the Associate world as they are in the Test world. In the big leagues they are seen as the charming little team with the great backstory. In Associate cricket they are seen as the favoured ones, who get the best international fixtures, have money poured into them, and then bully everyone with huge hitters and quick bowlers.

When they became the only Associate in the tournament proper, that changed. People got behind them, because they knew what it meant. They knew what any win by Afghanistan would do. Perhaps even more so than a big win by Netherlands or Scotland, a win by Afghanistan would get so much attention, and give them so much good press. With the chance that two wins could get you a semi-final place, there were some who thought they were even an outside chance at getting there.

The problem was that the Afghanistan team was not at its best for the first game against Sri Lanka. They had Karim Sadiq in their middle order, a player with a T20I batting average of 14 at a strike rate of 110.7. He made a seven-ball duck. They kept their big-hitting specialist batsman, Najibullah Zadran, at No. 9. In the end they couldn't quite make a big enough score to make Sri Lanka panic. South Africa went beyond 200 against them, and that should have been it. Instead, Shahzad happened. At the halfway mark they were pretty much halfway there. They just needed two of Najibullah, Mohammad Nabi or Shenwari to come off. All got starts, none stayed in.


Afghanistan have waved the Associates flag at the World T20 and put pressure on the ICC to consider changing what is now a bleak future© IDI/Getty Images


The game against England - that was the one. Everyone saw it. Eighteen overs into the match, it was shaping up as one of the most memorable days in cricket history. England have already given so many nations their first major scalp. With England's batsmen confused by spin, slipping over and running themselves out, Afghanistan should have closed out the game by attacking when they were well on top. Instead they went through the motions with their pre-planned middle-overs routine and eventually England went bang. It was only really one big over but that was the difference.

After three games Afghanistan were 0-3, a respectable 0-3, but that is not enough for the Associates, and nowhere near enough for Afghan cricket.

So when they collapsed to 120 from their 20 overs against West Indies, despite a top innings from Najibullah, most fans thought this was going to be a fruitless tournament for them. They would be seen as good but not quite good enough.

Then magic happened. Wickets, torn hamstrings, and 120 now looked like it was a mountain peak that could be defended. What should have been an easy chase, even in a team without Chris Gayle, suddenly got very hard.

There are moments in games when Shahid Afridi comes in and it's a close game. You kind of expect him to be out after eight balls, even if three or four of them end up beyond the rope. But there are those other times when you just feel he is going to do something more. It's in his eyes. You could never properly explain it, but you can see it. Maybe only in hindsight but it's there.

The semi-final of the 2009 World T20 had it, as did the final. When Shahid Afridi believes in himself, cold, hard logic cannot convince him otherwise.

There was that moment in the West Indies game when Shahzad stumped Denesh Ramdin; you could see that same look in his eyes, and then all the other eyes that raced around him.

Logic suggested that West Indies would still regain control, as England and South Africa did. But this time, instead of being weighed down by expectation, or the harsh reality of the situation, they just believed. Like someone was on their side, like fate was their sidekick, like Shahid Afridi. It was the way they did on the streets of Pakistan, on the concrete pitches of Kabul. They knew it was they who would win this match.

By the time Nabi bowled that last over, it just felt like they were going to win. He was one of the best bowlers in the tournament, and here he was, with the ball in hand for the most important over Afghanistan cricket has had. Their former leader, their most composed player.

Other sides may not have picked their offspinner for that over, but Afghanistan believed in Nabi. He delivered them two dot balls, and then when he was finally hit, Najibullah ran and took a catch that should be tattooed into the memory of Afghans for generations to come. The next two balls went for singles. And they had done it. They had beaten a major team at an international tournament. The team that even cricket didn't want were winners.

For some it was because Gayle had been rested, or because West Indies treated it as a dead rubber, but even if that is true, as Ryan Campbell of Hong Kong put it earlier in the tournament, "There are no dead rubbers in Associate cricket." You could see from how the Afghans celebrated, how they cried, how they screamed, that to them this was alive, that it mattered.

If West Indies win this tournament, an Associate team, a team of Shahid Afridis, will be the only team who beat them.

Yet, for all that happiness, we next see Afghanistan, or any Associate on the big stage, roughly three years and three months from now. And the last time we see them, the last time they get their big chance, they go out as winners.

Most of them are winners for just surviving their own country.

In Afghanistan's Kunar province there is a place called Marawara village. There they have a cricket ground, although it is more that in name only. It is mainly dirt and rocks, and at its heart is a concrete pitch. The locals are cricket-mad. Many of the older guys were brought up or born in Pakistan, learning their cricket there. The younger guys grew up in Afghanistan. They are passionate fans of Afghanistan, and of Pakistan, although mostly when Afridi plays.

Here on this field they try to emulate their hero. When a local Taliban leader decided to place an IED on the field, he knew just where to put it. He knew where they hit the ball. But maybe he didn't know why. The position picked for the bomb was midwicket. Because those kids, those men, they clear their front legs and they swing across the line. They do that because they saw their hero Shahid Afridi do it. So many times.

Afridi might go down as a cricketing oddity. The world record at 16, the 2009 World T20 heroics, and many great performances in largely forgotten ODIs. The pitch-tampering, fan-hitting, wild-swinging, politicking and ball-biting are the sorts of things we know him for.

But if Afghanistan's story keeps going, if cricket lets them in, they take flight, and become something special, it will have been inspired by their spiritual godfather, Boom Boom Afridi. Their Lala. For all the special things he was able to do on the field, nothing was more important than him inspiring our next great cricket nation. Shahid Afridi is more than a joke, he is a hero. An hero for Afghanistan.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.



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