THERE is one bet that a cricket aficionado would have staked his house on two summers ago: that Shahid Afridi, the game's most electrifying presence, the personification of the sporting maverick, a man incapable of the ordinary, would never develop the self-control, still less the sanity, required of a Test cricketer.
Yet the Pakistan allrounder has done precisely that. He has turned himself into a Test cricketer and one that is consistently good enough to be picked in the world's second-best XI for II of the last 15 games. Self-control and consistent behaviour, on the other hand, remain occasionally elusive.
Two months ago having proved himself at Iong last, he retired from Test cricket aged 26, citing fatigue. Within weeks, he had backtracked. Last winter he was suspended for illegally roughing up the pitch, in full view of the television cameras, to make life trickier for England's batsmen. Yet without that competitive fire bequeathed by his ancestors, that insistence on doing things his way, the world would be one entertainer worse off.
For the volatile scion of a Khyber warrior tribe, born Sahibzada Mohammad Shahid Khan Afridi, being obliged to grow up in public must be seen as the crucial factor in his evolution as the era's most exciting cricketer (he ranks just behind Sachin Tendulkar as the subject of the most searches on the Cricinfo website).
An international debut at the age of 16 is tricky enough - simultaneously hitting the fastest one-day international century ever is almost a guarantee of excessive hope, intermittent glory and repeated disappointment. He was impulsive and knew it: "I just want to hit every ball out of the ground. I can't help it."
A decade on, the journalist Osman Samiuddin describes his coming of age as "a vivid tribute to Pakistan's new team ethic" in which "his genius and lunacy are both now comfortably accommodated".
Afridi's maturation is no common-or-garden rebirth. Mavericks and team sports, by and large, are not a comfortable fit. For crimes of rejecting caution and daring to look foolish, such instinctive, wilful performers are envied, distrusted, abused and usually scorned, one way or another.
That is why, much as legspinner Shane Warne possesses untold inspirational and tactical acumen, he has never been Australia's fulltime captain. It is also why it was virtually impossible to imagine Afridi making the Test grade.
Initially, what made his name also thwarted his desire to be regarded as something more than a freak. Here, even now, is a batsman who disdains defence. Whether his innings is short or long, whether the opponents are worthy or not, the song is invariably the same.
The fastest one-day international century? The 37 balls he needed against Sri Lanka on that barely believable debut in Nairobi. The second-fastest? The 45 balls he took against India last winter, a figure shared by Brian Lara of the West Indies.
Nobody has scored faster in a one-day international innings of 50-plus than his 56 off 18 against Holland: 305.56 runs per 100 balls. Of the 20 speediest such innings, five are his. Quick as he is between the wickets, he would rather not bother running. While Australia's Matthew Hayden has barvested -- the highest ratio of boundaries in a half-century or better (96 per cent), the next four are Afridi's. Small wonder the Cricinfo site dubbed him "the maddest of Mad Maxes". Not until the end of Pakistan's dispiriting Australian tour of 2004-05 did this highly useful form of insanity translate to regular Test selection. Here, it seemed, was the ultimate proof of the abridged game's inferiority. Unsure of his role, he had played fitfully in 14 Tesfs spanning six years, hardening prejudices. Trying to adapt, he had been compromised, hesitant. Since returning in Sydney, however, he has averaged 45, hit three centuries and claimed 25 wickets, emboldened by a sympathetic outsider in coach Bob Woolmer.
Tellingly, he usually saves his best for old rivals India. In January he romped to 103 off 80 balls, battered a Testbest 156 off 128 deliveries and made every effort to hit Harbhajan Singh's highly reputable off-spin for six consecutive sixes (he had to make do with four after the ball ran into a gutter and became too soggy to savage).
In Bangalore the previous March, he had walloped the second fastest Test 50 ever seen, then picked up vital last-day wickets - including those of Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman - to square the series. Once, after being struck over extracover, a flummoxed Anil Kumble, a spinner with more than 500 Test victims, was reduced to a plea: "Where should I bowl to you?"
During this purple patch, Pakistan overtook England and India in the Test rankings and now sit behind only Australia. This is not pure coincidence. Afridi has won a victory for rebels with causes, for the independent spirit that courses through Pakistani veins more freely than those of any other cricketing nation.
The most revealing statistic is that scoring rate. Pre-Sydney, he had proceeded at 67 runs per 100 balls: a largely futile attempt to adapt, to restrain, to obey the legions of critics. Since then, the rate has soared to nigh-on 113, while his average has improved by nearly 50 per cent. Among batsmen averaging 45-plus since July 2004, the next quickest rate is Virender Sehwag's 78, a handsome figure rendered puny.
In essence, Afridi has turned risk into art. Indeed, as Test scoring rates rise to unprecedented levels, the game seems to be adapting to him.
Arguably more significant -- exhibiting a versatile as well as an inventive mind -- is the way his bowling has evolved. Crucially, noted the columnist Kamran Abassi, the realisation that his bowling was valued eased him into his batting role, leaving him less insecure.
Originally selected as a leg-spinner, he was once content to float the ball, a slave, perversely, to convention. These days, as a bowler of extremely waspish wrist-spin (75mph-plus, some 20mph quicker than Shane Warne), he profits from variations in flight and pace, confounding the best and becalming most. In keeping with everything he does, and everything he is, he barely pauses between balls, the approach to the stumps being a joyous, restless dance.
Now there is even talk of him succeeding Inzamamul-Haq as captain. For an unreconstructed maverick, it would be a poke in the eye for those twin enemies of sporting excellence: orthodoxy and pragmatism. For Afridi has succeeded, not by growing up, getting wise and accepting his limitations - but by growing up, getting wise and being himself.
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