May issue 2011
Interview: Shahid Afridi, T20 Captain
“Cricketers are Pakistan’s ambassadors”
– Shahid Afridi
T20 Captain, Pakistan Cricket Team
Often when one meets a famous personality, he/she doesn’t live up to expectations. More often than not, their onscreen or public persona is totally different from who they are in person. With Shahid Afridi, what you see is what you get.
Scheduled to meet at his house, once we turned onto “Shahid Afridi Street” there was no need for the house number to identify which one was his: the crowd assembled outside one of the gates was a sure sign that this was Chez Afridi. People of all ages — men, women and children — stood outside. As I made my way in, I remember thinking, “Do they stand here for just a glimpse of him? Do they ever get to speak to him or get an autograph?” And before the interview even began, I had my answer. In his drawing room was a Pakistani family visiting from Melbourne. He didn’t know them; they had come uninvited and unannounced, taking a chance to meet their hero — and he didn’t let them down.
In true Pathan tradition, the hospitality at the Afridi residence is heartwarming. A tray full of glasses with sherbet was brought into the room by one of his brothers, and served to the guests. And Afridi not just played the gracious host, but also made sure he divided his attention equally between all the visitors.
Later, several other fans who turned up at his doorstep were also invited into his house to meet him, get autographs and have pictures taken with him. Just another day in the life of Pakistan’s current cricketing hero.
In an informal chat with Newsline, Afridi revealed how his star status had gone to another level after the World Cup. Since he returned from India, from commuting between Karachi and Lahore, attending receptions in his and the team’s honour, assorted events, press conferences and interviews, and squeezing in some family time, it seems he has barely had a moment to himself. “Since I’ve come back I must have signed 600 autographs a day,” he said. Was he complaining? “No,” said Afridi. “Being Pathan, it’s not considered courteous to turn people away.” He added, “Even if I’m sleeping and somebody turns up to meet me, my father will wake me up saying, ‘He must have travelled far to meet you and must have been waiting for a long time.’”
While one brother manages his meetings with fans at home, the other facilitates meetings with the media. But even when he receives calls on his cellphone without any reference, he invariably takes the call — and will even schedule an interview without any fuss.
That laid-back attitude was very much in evidence through this interview. Though he had already been summoned for some work before the interview ended — for which he had granted 20 minutes — he made sure I was able to ask all my questions, he flipped through the copy of Newsline I’d taken with me, commenting on it and making conversation throughout, and he plied my husband (who’d accompanied me) and me with sherbet and tea.
Currently, batting form aside, he is unarguably on top of his game, one of the most popular captains of the national team in recent history, and the most sought-after sportsman to endorse products from shampoos to soft drinks, not to mention a chief guest at myriad events. That is Shahid Afridi the cricketer. Shahid Afridi the person is grounded, genuine, forthcoming and hospitable. And 15 years of stardom have done nothing to change that.
Below is Newsline‘s interview with Shahid Afridi, done in the days immediately after the ICC World Cup 2011 and before the Pakistan cricket team departed for its tour of the West Indies.
Throughout the World Cup, you kept saying “we played as a unit.” Now that unit has changed and there are a lot of new, young entrants. Is it challenging to captain a constantly evolving side and to build that rapport all over again?
A unit is automatically formed by victory and when all the players have one goal. However, it is difficult, no doubt, to form one again. If you look back, a year ago, the unit had totally disintegrated, and the team was in shambles. To rebuild the team you have to take some of the players into confidence. And even if some of them are not performing well you have to support them, recognise their potential, show faith in them and they will succeed in future.
For the West Indies tour, we have rested three or four seniors — I will not say they have been dropped. This is because we need to try some young players — especially on tours such as these — and hopefully we will see some good talent emerge from among them. But, let me add, don’t expect too much from us as people have started doing after the World Cup.
The team will be playing all three formats of the game in the West Indies. What factors are taken into account when selecting players for such a tour, since players are invariably suited to one or another format of the game rather than all of them, and the squad consists of just 15 or 16 members?
What we tend to do is if a player performs well in the T20 format, we try to make him play a One-Day game as well as a Test. To me, this is the wrong approach. God has gifted every player with a natural ability and talent. For example, I don’t consider myself to be a Test cricketer because I don’t have the temperament that’s required. I won’t take names, but there are two or three players who should be allowed to focus only on the ODI and T20 format.
As captain, I try and advise the chairman and chief selector. Of course, it is up to them to take my suggestions or otherwise. I can’t force anyone and don’t want to either; I think everyone has their own job to do and it should be limited to just that. So for the West Indies tour too I have given my suggestions. Now let’s see.
As captain, do you feel you are less able to focus on your own game, on and off the field?
When your team assumes shape, players you are worried about start performing, and the team starts winning matches, then the captain is able to relax and focus on his own game. But where there are problems, with discipline or on the field, when you need to see to who is doing what, then it becomes difficult.
My management, the coaches, the chairman have really supported me in building a unit. And I am thankful to the chairman for putting faith in me.
What is the level of involvement of coaches with a side? Earlier you said that the team requires a batting coach. How long should a coach be assigned to a team for it to make a difference and produce results?
Javed Miandad was offered the position of batting coach, but he wanted to act as coach for bowling and fielding, and wanted a say in the selection of players. This is not how things are done.
When you are ill, you consult a doctor who specialises in a certain area. If our illness is batting, then we need a batting coach. So we went to Javed bhai. He didn’t agree; that’s fine, it’s his decision. In 60 odd years, Pakistan cricket hasn’t produced just one great batsman. There are many, you just have to find them. And if not from here, then an international coach can be hired.
We need a coach who can work out with the players and accompany them on tours. We’ve got a lot of young boys coming into the side and it is extremely necessary to have a batting coach for them. Our bowling has improved, as has our fielding — save the India match [at Mohali]. Our fielding has been very good — look at the New Zealand tour. We’ve just been struggling with our batting. Why? Because we don’t have a batting coach.
While everyone acknowledges you have matured as a captain and you have been performing well as a bowler, you have repeatedly been questioned about your batting. What do you think has gone wrong?
My batting worries me too! To be quite honest, I didn’t work a lot on my batting for the World Cup. I thought, “These are subcontinental wickets, it won’t be too difficult to bat on them and I’ll cover up.” But I admit this was a very wrong approach on my part. Now we have the West Indies and Zimbabwe tours coming up, so I will focus on my form and work harder to perform as a good all-rounder.
Pakistan manages to muster dramatic, even unexpected wins in World Cup tournaments, while the team’s performance the rest of the time remains lacklustre and mediocre. What do you think about this?
The World Cup has its own importance. It comes every four years. You enjoy it, even those who don’t watch cricket watch it — there’s nothing else on TV — but when it ends, it becomes history. Then people start focusing on the subsequent tours and series.
How much of what appears in the media reaches the players, particularly while they are touring and playing abroad? Do players follow media reports, or are they asked to keep away when there is a lot of negative content, for example during the England series or the lead-up to the semi-final in India?
When you’re sitting in the hotel room, flipping channels, you do tend to switch to a news channel just to see what’s being said. In England we gave the media a chance to attack us. And in India, although we gave them no reason to, they had already decided to target us. The fact is, a person who is able to handle pressure excels in his game, no matter what.
Throughout the World Cup you kept saying all the ‘right’ things. Then on your return to Pakistan, during a TV interview, you said this about Indians: “Our hearts are bigger, theirs are smaller.” This created outrage on both sides of the border. What prompted that?
Most of my cricketing career has been spent playing in India more than in any other part of the world. And it’s where I have enjoyed cricket the most. We don’t show our cricketers the respect Indians show theirs.
But when we went to India (for the semi-final), the kind of response we — and all Pakistanis and Pakistan itself — got from the media was terrible. Not from the entire Indian media, I concede, but certainly from some sections. I was really angered by this but kept quiet throughout. But then when they won the match, hurtful things were said such as, “We have avenged the Mumbai attacks” and “We’ve sent them back in rikshaws.” There’s a limit to everything; to how much you slander another country and its people.
What I actually meant by that statement was that those who belong to the media there have small hearts. Our media is far better in that regard. And I said it about their media only. What have I got against the people? We’ve always received a lot of love from them. I believe we should better our relations with our neighbours. They respect us and of course they’ll want that I utter positive things.
Look, if you leave it to the politicians, all they (will) do is create and defuse problems at will.
You say you consider yourself to be an ambassador for Pakistan. Is that a role you take on willingly? And does it put pressure on you?
We are all Pakistan’s ambassadors. So as Afridi the captain, I am an ambassador for Pakistan and what I say is reflective of our country and of our character. And as an ambassador, I want to convey a positive message. There’s no pressure.
We want to go and play in India. It is a huge occasion when the two teams play over there. And I enjoy my cricket, but I don’t just sit there in the hotel room. I get out, enjoy my food, go shopping, meet people. I don’t want to be confined to the room and cricket alone. Neither do I want this for the team, nor will I let that happen.
Should captains get PR training?
What impact has a lack of international cricket at home had on the players and Pakistan cricket?
When there’s no cricket at home, you’re not able to use your pitches and the condition. The grounds are converted into wedding halls. It is difficult. But I am still hopeful that international cricket will return to Pakistan.
Previously a lot of players used to play county cricket, but that trend has decreased now…
These days, there are so many national commitments that there’s no time. But I am free [for a while] so I will be going. I’ve signed the contract. I was asked to play both ODIs and Twenty20, but I opted to only play in the T20 format.
County cricket unarguably helps cricketers develop their skills. What in your view is the contribution of school level and first-class level cricket in producing and honing players?
The more cricket you play, the more improvement there will be in your game. Only if your domestic cricket is strong, will your international cricket be strong too. If you recall, before the 1992 World Cup, when South Africa was going through troubled times because of apartheid and its team was not able to play international cricket, their entire focus was on domestic cricket and school cricket.
When I started playing cricket, there was good, competitive cricket at the school level. Now, ever since laptops have come out, I don’t see children playing as such.
It is very important to revive cricket at the school level and get children interested in the game again. I know it is difficult, and parents also don’t encourage their children to play cricket alongside studying, because cricket is not something you do for only one or two hours a day.
There are expectations from the country on one side, and there are your daughters’ expectations on the other. During the World Cup, your daughters advised you, “Tuk tuk khelain.” How do you respond to them?
Yes, I saw that on YouTube … They don’t understand that their father is adat se majbur (a slave to habit)!
My children, most kids in fact, are so enthusiastic about cricket. There’s little else here to keep them entertained — I think the World Cup did that for them. Cricket is the one unifying factor in this country and children really enjoy the game.
I think we need to provide them with a clean [sporting] environment and with positive commentary, so that when children are watching and listening, there is no negative impact on them. Ex-cricketers keep bringing up match-fixing, I think they should refrain from doing so. They should focus on the positives.
In your 15-year career, you have never been implicated in spot-fixing or match-fixing. How have you been able to keep yourself free from allegations?
I am thankful to my father who always provided for us through halal means, and I feel great pride in saying this. A lot depends on your family background, how you have been raised. When you’re able to accumulate wealth through the right means, you don’t feel the need to involve yourself in such dealings. And then, I never did keep the company of those who are/were involved in it.
In all these years, there must have been many ups and downs. How much has your family helped and supported you through them?
My family has either been in business or in the army. As far as cricket goes, my father hated it. He used to say, “You go off all day and come back with a burnt face.” But then people kept telling him how talented I was and that I could play for the national team. So he started resenting it less. My older brother, Tariq, supported me a lot. He’s also played first-class cricket. So over time, my father started loving cricket as much as he used to hate it!
People have noticed the maturity in you as a person, cricketer and captain. How much does that have to do with your role as a husband and father? And how do you measure your own growth?
Over time a person learns a lot — especially from one’s mistakes. I’ve had my boys’ nights out. But my company hasn’t only consisted of my chronological peers. I have also sat in the company of those much older than me. I’ve mixed and socialised with people from around the world. So when you socialise, you learn a lot.
Responsibility really changes a person. As a bachelor, life was without a care. When you get married, life changes. When you have children, there are far more responsibilities. It is the same for a sportsman. As a captain you are laden with more responsibilities — and captaining the Pakistan team is very demanding.
So responsibility has brought maturity…
I’ve learned a lot with time. But despite that, the kid within lives on and keeps revealing himself from time to time!
At this stage, what does Pakistan cricket need most?
What Pakistan cricket really needs is a focus on domestic cricket. We need better pitches here, good bowling equipment. The umpiring standard in domestic cricket needs to be raised. What happens right now is that if I were to play domestic cricket, I could get the umpire to give a player out whenever I wanted. Just a glare will be enough pressure on the umpire — international cricketers can wield such influence over them. This is all wrong. Umpires will need to toughen up.
Then, of course, we need the support of our people. Keep supporting us. I’ve always said, this is not just our team; this is the Pakistani people’s team.
From the magazine:
From the blog:
This interview was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Newsline.
Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.