Shahid Afridi interview: PSL posterboy determined to see league succeed for the future of Pakistan cricket

It is not perhaps the most obvious rendering, but the green left-arm bowler in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) logo is based on Wasim Akram.

As at least one league official has pointed out, it looks more like a left-arm Abdul Razzaq. The choice makes plenty of sense — Pakistan has produced no greater bowler than Akram and not many, if any, greater cricketers.

Over a decade after his retirement, 15 years on from a beautiful peak and without an official role, Akram remains fixed in the Pakistani imagination.

It was never going to happen and especially not while Shahid Afridi was still active, but his star-man pose may have also been, in some ways, an apposite graphic.

Is that too unpalatable, especially for those purists who cannot help but dry retch over the way he has played the game?

Well, think of a cricketer who has been more emblematic of Pakistan’s modern age, in its general depreciation and foibles and also in its enduring ability to locate highs unseen elsewhere.

There has been no more prominent figure of the time in which he has played, now just a few months short of 20 years.

Heck, some days it is tempting — though not recommended — to use Afridi as the medium through which to interpret Pakistan: careless, impulsive, backward steps dimmed by electric bursts forwards.

When he debuted in October 1996, Pakistan were seven months on from hosting a World Cup final, in Lahore. They were a force in the world, part of an empowered Asian bloc, and part responsible for the most profitable World Cup until then.

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On the field they were an equivalent force; the squad Afridi first walked into, though fractious and complicit in the corruption scandals of the era, was littered with playing gold dust.

The scene he leaves is vastly different. Pakistan have not hosted a global event since 1996. They no longer even host regular internationals at home.

They are not an administrative heavyweight. Talents keep emerging and results are not awful (limited overs excepted) but the swagger has been pricked. Of all the hopes it carries, one is that the PSL, which begins on Thursday in the UAE, becomes Pakistan cricket’s first step back to regaining the stature it held when Afridi arrived.

His career, then, has paralleled neatly a two-decade cycle that now stands on the brink of potential regeneration.

And given that he was one of the league’s icon players, the first pick in the draft, the country’s Twenty20 captain, and playing the format before it was even invented, the star-man would not have been so outré a choice as logo.

If only, in fact, such a league was around at the start of his career. "If I put myself there [20 years back], it is a huge opportunity, the PSL," Afridi told The National.

“For your name to be in it, so many youngsters getting a chance, it is a place where you can perform.

“You can really put yourself out there in front of the world, make a name for yourself in international cricket. Availing it will depend on the player, how strong he is, how capable he is.”

It may also help arrest what has been a steep regression in their limited overs growth over the last half decade — or more accurately stagnation because it is the rest of the world that has evolved to the next level.

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They have done so primarily because of their participation in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the benefits of which have been most vividly evident in the attacking brio of current Indian batsmanship.

Pakistan’s players have been frozen out from the IPL after its inaugural season. What might have been had they continued to take part, especially after they won the World Twenty20 in 2009, a triumph in which Afridi was so central?

“The environment of such a league, when you hang out with great players from around the world, when a young guy goes there, he has these great facilities, shares a dressing room with great players and coaches, makes a huge difference,” Afridi said.

“New guys, new talent could have gotten opportunities there. They would have learnt a lot and financially it would really have helped them out.

“They would’ve improved playing in tough situations, playing more cricket, under pressure, with massive crowds backing them or jeering them. That makes a player.

B“Which is why the PSL is such a huge opportunity. I think the cricket board deserves a lot of credit for putting this together.

“It should have happened a long time ago, but better late than never.

“The talent that we already have right now, this is a chance for them to really develop.”

The league’s full value will only emerge when it breaks out of the geographical limbo in which it is trapped.

Everyone, from league officials to its players, knows this, that for the PSL to thrive, for it to feel a truly Pakistani product, accessible to its fans, it needs to be in Pakistan.

There is some time before that happens, at the very least three seasons. Afridi though, as he has said before, still feels it should have been launched in Pakistan.

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“The thing is, I really, really wanted for the PSL to be held in Pakistan, for Pakistan’s talent, for their improvement,” he said. “If it happened there it would have been good. But the PCB took a decision and there must be some reason behind it.”

Afridi’s intentions are noble, but he must know that it was impossible to have staged the league, as it is, in Pakistan.

Few, if any, of the foreign stars contacted by the league were comfortable about playing there.

And without them the PSL would just have been a variant on a local domestic Twenty20 tournament.

“I hope it will eventually come back to Pakistan. I really want it to succeed but am 50-50 about crowds turning up. People work here [in the UAE], they have jobs so it won’t be easy. They may come for the evening games.”

If he is cautious about the kind of crowd turnouts, it is perhaps from the awareness that, in some part, it depends on him, as a Pathan captain of the Peshawar Zalmi team.

“The Pathan community is so big here and our matches initially are in the evening I think, so I’m sure they will come for support.”

His support stretches far beyond his own community though. And if it has been a burden as much as it has been a boon, it is unmistakably the sign of a cricketer, of a man, who has mattered, a man who, in many ways, is the PSL’s un-anointed poster boy.

“Obviously, as captain of Pakistan’s Twenty20 side, and Peshawar Zalmi captain, it is a huge opportunity for me too,” he said.

“I know a lot of people will be watching the league, keeping an eye on players. It is huge, a matter of my country’s honour. I just want it to succeed.”

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