Pakistan fast bowler on recovering from knee injury, captaining Qalandars to two PSL titles and looking ahead to the T20 Blast
Shaheen Shah Afridi: the rise of the falcon
How a boy from a remote town near the Khyber Pass became one of the most fearsome fast bowlers in the world
Statsguru tells us Shaheen Shah Afridi has not been around much for Pakistan over the last year. In between two injuries, he has played 16 international matches, less than a third of Pakistan’s total matches since July last year, when a dive on the boundary in Galle led to a ligament injury in his right knee.
And yet, it is unarguable that in that time, his stature within Pakistan has grown immeasurably, to the degree that he shares equal billing with Babar Azam as the team’s biggest star. The kerfuffle over the rehabilitation of his injury, in particular his hurried departure – at his own expense – from the UAE to the UK to begin rehab; the comeback and heartbreak of another injury to the same knee at a World Cup final; a high-profile wedding; leading Lahore Qalandars to a second successive PSL title; and constant and inevitable rumours around a leadership tilt with Pakistan.
He was always a superstar, but with this very 90s-Pakistan-superstar trajectory, he’s blown up into the stratosphere. The perfect time, then, to land up in England for a stint in the T20 Blast with Nottinghamshire.
The knee is “back to 100% now,” he told ESPNcricinfo, even if there were murmurings during Pakistan’s home season around a slight dip in his pace post return. He’s dismissive of that, pointing to a decent haul of wickets since: 19 in the PSL, six in five T20Is against New Zealand, eight in four ODIs against the same team.
“Everyone has a view about it [the pace], but I’ve been feeling good. You look at yourself, even if you are bowling 110kmph and taking wickets, you’re feeling good. I took wickets. I gave 100% in the field, that matters more. Speed doesn’t matter as much but if there has been a dip, it will improve with time.
“[I was injured] two months out before the [T20] World Cup, two-three months after the [T20] World Cup also. So it will of course take time to get back. That match energy or fitness, you only get it from playing matches. Since the PSL I’ve been feeling better, I got better through it and then played internationals for Pakistan as well. With time I’ll improve and the more I play the more I’ll improve.”
The moment of the recurrence of that knee injury – which subsequently ruled him out of a big home Test season – will remain one of the great what-ifs of his career. With Pakistan battling hard to defend 138 at the MCG in the T20 World Cup final, Afridi took an athletic catch at long-off in the 13th over to dismiss Harry Brook, but jammed his knee in the process. He went off briefly, returned to roars, ran in to bowl the 16th with England still needing a tricky 41 off 30 and pulled up after one ball. England were wobbling, the surface wasn’t easy and Afridi had grown his way into the tournament. Instead, he went off, Ben Stokes hit a four and six off Iftikhar Ahmed, on to complete the over, and it was over.
The year before, Pakistan were looking strong defending in the semi-final against Australia before a Matthew Wade blitz off Afridi – with a dropped catch to boot – turned the game.
“Obviously, it’s every player’s dream to win a World Cup for his country and I still remember 2021, how that ended,” he said. “And in this tournament , if I didn’t get injured at such a crucial moment, maybe we could’ve won. Maybe if I had stayed fit and bowled…” he trails off. “Injuries can happen at any time.”
How much does he still think about those two games?
“If I think too much about them then I won’t be able to move ahead.”
“Me and Lala were practising shots, about how to hit in the final overs, working on my bat swing a little. Nobody has the kind of experience he has in T20s, and working with him was really good.”<b>Shaheen Shah Afridi</b> on practising six-hitting with Shahid Afridi
His memories of the last two PSLs are much happier. Lahore Qalandars could not have fallen lower by the time he took over as captain, but two titles in successive years has been a genuinely remarkable turnaround. He’s visibly grown into the role, slipping from a slightly nervous presence in need of advice to a commandeering leader, supremely confident in his own decisions. His performances have not really been impacted; if anything, captaincy has brought out something else in him, amply evident in his all-round impact in this year’s final.
“Captaincy is totally different to bowling,” he said. “You have to keep the entire team on the same page with that. With bowling, you only think about what you are doing with the ball, how to bowl to the captain’s plans.
“With captaincy, you’re thinking about your bowling but also about every member of the team, what mood they’re in, how they’re feeling. That is a totally different job. But I’ve enjoyed it lots.
“I think the line between the two [captaincy and bowling] is quite clear. If you are the captain, you know when you need to bring a certain bowler on and at what moment, whether it is a pressure moment. As a captain there’s always the option that I can bring myself on at that tough moment. If I don’t lead from the front at that time then obviously the team can start thinking negatively that the captain is hiding himself.”
What captaincy has also done is bring out his batting, at least in the shortest format where Notts might benefit. Previously seen as useful enough to not be easily dismissed, Afridi has developed into a floating, and fierce, clean hitter of sixes. As well as the wickets in the last PSL, he ended up with the ninth-highest strike rate – 168.35 – among batters with more than 100 runs. That included the 15-ball 44 in the final against Multan Sultans.
“I always liked batting, right from my Under-16 days,” he said. “When I got injured, I started working on my batting a lot more because I wasn’t bowling. When I came to England for my rehab, I worked hard on my batting then.
“I’ve always actually gone into bat with the same plan but because I’m hitting more sixes these days it looks like my batting has improved.”
The increase in sixes has no doubt come from the work he’s done on his batting with his father-in-law, a man familiar with the sometimes brutal art of hitting maximums: Shahid Afridi.
“Yeah there’s been an impact from that. Me and Lala [Shahid] were practising shots, about how to hit in the final overs, working on my bat swing a little. Nobody has the kind of experience he has in T20s, and working with him was really good. I’ve learnt a lot.
“My priority is still to be the bowler. If that doesn’t click on a day then of course, I want to contribute with the bat and if not with the bat, then in the field.”
He has fond memories of his only previous game at Trent Bridge, his new home, a Player-of-the-Match performance in a blockbuster win against England. With a gig in The Hundred later, he has a long summer planned in England.
“History tells you runs are scored here but I think if you bowl in the right areas, you still get wickets here. It’s a new county for me, I’m enjoying it already and I hope I’ll have some good cricket to show for it.”
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo