Whoever scripted Shahid Afridi’s incredible cricket career would have had their first draft binned, given how it would defy almost every limit of the traditional human senses and how hard it would be to replicate — as it turns out, even for the man living it.
Arguably the most unbelievable aspect of the astounding two-decade cricket career of Shahid Afridi is its longevity. Given the length of his stay in the middle was almost always inversely proportional to his team’s needs, perhaps it’s not that surprising.
This ominous task of squeezing 20 years of cricket, spanning over 500 international matches, into 38 chapters eventually results in cherry-picked, self-serving omissions from Afridi’s deliberately controversial autobiography.
Game Changer, more than a tell-all, is a selective memoir that will eventually become the preface for the manifesto of one Shahid Khan Afridi, election candidate for NA-243 (Karachi East-II).
From Karachi politics to civil-military relations to regional security, Afridi addresses subjects meticulously designed for the consumption of his diehard fans turned potential voters, with an eye on becoming the next high-profile cricketer turned politician.
Even so, the book must be given its due credit for accurately personifying the man himself. It’s incoherent, confused, self-important, all over the place, all the while managing to generate electrifying buzz.
In this regard, Afridi couldn’t have handpicked a better writer to pen his autobiography than Wajahat S Khan, given the latter’s exhibition of many of the same characteristics. Therefore, editorial checks, nuanced narrations, polished arguments are sacrificed at the altar of unfiltered, jumbled, haphazardly spewed rants.
The book is similarly oblivious to the reality that in its relentless allegations against all barring oneself, it is an unintended self-exposé and an ode to the Pakistan cricket team’s dressing room.
The book actually asks for a political critique, even if doing so would be a repetition of the same error that Game Changer makes for itself. One can’t, however, help but bite.
For there’s rampant misogyny, which includes digs at feminists and borders on rape apologia where the victim and perpetrator are ‘both at fault’.
There’s selective religiosity where the author wholeheartedly endorses ‘partying’ for himself and his younger colleagues, but his daughters are ‘not going to be competing in public sporting activities… for social and religious reasons’.
There’s relentless stereotyping of the Pashtun as the ‘warrior race’, a far too often self-promoted racist label which the progressives have struggled against for generations, the latest among them metamorphosing into the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.
Indeed, given the ambitions of the book and its author, there’s the much needed talking up of the Army leadership, with a sprinkling of vanilla critique of the institution’s involvement in politics, which, of course, is necessitated by the follies of ‘our democracy’ and ‘our democrats’.
One anecdote involving former Army Chief Raheel Sharif during the inauguration of a cricket academy in Waziristan is especially priceless.
‘As we were walking up to the pitch, he told me that he was going to smash me for a four. I’m not sure whether that was a plan or an order or both. I decided it was in the nation’s and my interest for the army chief to hit me for a boundary. So I bowled an unreasonably easy ball to him and he – showing no mercy – smashed me over mid-wicket…’
One would’ve mistaken it for masterful political satire if one had the bliss of ignorance.
Oh, and FYI, ‘Qamar Javed Bajwa, the chief of army staff, does better cricket analysis than most commentators and analysts.’ Of course, he does.
Even so, given that Shahid Afridi, as things stand, is still better known for his exploits in sports than politics, one would also have to take Game Changer at its face value, with the game in question ostensibly being cricket.
Now, Wajahat Khan might be many things, but sportswriter he is not. And his limitations are laid bare every time he labels Wahab Riaz a ‘swing specialist’ or when his best shot at describing Afridi’s actual cricketing skills is ‘freakishly quick leg-spin’.
Where he lacks in cricket terminologies, he makes up with a blitzkrieg of military metaphors. In fact, Wajahat Khan appears to be having so much joy in penning the memoirs that quite often it feels as though he’s mistaken it for his own autobiography.
This is reflected in the Preface and Acknowledgements and is rooted in the loud penchant for all things military, shared between the subject and the scribe.
What is inexcusable, though, is the sheer bombardment of factual errors. These range from howlers like ‘after that first match in Chennai, I would go on to play four or five more games against India’ to incorrect mentions of tournament names and even Afridi’s own birth year.
The book describes the first match during the ODI series against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi in 2007 as ‘Inzi’s last match’, even though Inzamam-ul-Haq had already played his final game earlier that year at the World Cup. It says Afridi’s infamous clash with Gautam Gambhir took place in Asia Cup 2007 — there was no Asia Cup in 2007.
Even Wasim Akram in his Foreword says, “I captained [Afridi] for 10 years or so”. Afridi debuted in October 1996; the last time Akram captained Pakistan was in February 2000.
But of course, it would’ve been hard to correct ‘Wasim Bhai’, who is the only superhero — alongside Pervez Musharraf and indeed Lala himself – in a book that simultaneously takes the moral high ground on fixing. That holier than thou standpoint – again, designed for the political brownies – unravels in the creativity that Afridi exhibits in revealing how he knew beforehand about the 2010 spot-fixing scandal.
While Afridi ‘knew’ what Salman Butt was ‘up to’, he still chose him as his multi format vice-captain in 2010. He preaches respect for ‘seniority’ seemingly as the reason why he deserved the captaincy in 2007 – and not Shoaib Malik or Salman Butt – only to launch tirades against almost all his ‘seniors’ from Aamer Sohail to Waqar Younis to Javed Miandad that serve no purpose other than ruffle the requisite feathers to sell more copies.
Afridi especially goes after the latter two. But in the middle of the narrative decides to apologise to Waqar Younis, without telling the reader what he himself had done wrong. And having rambled on about the coaching limitations of ‘small man’ Javed Miandad, and how he did ‘not let him bat at the nets’ during the 1999 series against India, Afridi thinks it best to call him as the batting consultant for his young side as captain in 2011.
Confusion, chaos, self-contradiction and zero self-reflection dominate Game Changer. Afridi’s many failures are the responsibility of his many coaches who asked him to change his game, and the few successes naturally his own. And yet the author simultaneously says that it was that very change in his game that resulted in one of the highlights of his career: the 2009 World T20.
Perhaps then in addition to the semi-formal announcement of his political career, Game Changer can also be described as an unintentional confession as to the change Shahid Afridi could’ve brought to Pakistan cricket had he played out his career differently – both on the ground and inside the dressing room.
Author: Wajahat S. Khan & Shahid Khan Afridi
Publisher: Harper Collins