We follow movie stars, television stars, musicians and what not but in Pakistan, when it comes to stardom, no one overshadows the cricketers; when it comes to cricket, not many names can overshadow Shahid Afridi.
In Dubai for the HBL-PSL Opening Ceremony, which featured an evening of entertainment greats such as Ali Zafar, Fahad Mustafa, Shehzad Roy and the internationally acclaimed Shaggy (more on that next week), we spent the day catching up with cricket heroes. The Conrad, now regular nesting ground for the players, was buzzing with PSL fever. You could see the Pakistanis huddled around one table discussing strategy and the Kiwis on the next. We spotted Sam Billings heading out of the gym with a health smoothie and Darren Sammy soaking up the sun next to the pool. Mahela Jayawardene was especially charming as he shared – in a non-cricket moment – what League players discussed in the dressing room. “Music, movies and food,” he smiled.
Amongst them all – and we spoke to several – was Shahid Lala Afridi. Dressed in a Nike Air tee and the most basic of flip flops, Lala was roaming around as if he owned the place. And in a way he did. “PSL is intended to boost Pakistan,” he said in the interview. “And I feel all franchises are my own.”
We caught up with Shahid Afridi as he spoke about ‘star performers’ and what PSL and the League format meant at a time when the world was being divided by politics.
“Cricket, in fact sport in general, is something that brings people together,” Afridi said. “We aren’t playing in Pakistan yet but players from all over the world are coming to Dubai to play for Pakistan Super League. That is quite an achievement and it’ll help build cricket stronger back home. It’s important for our players to play internationally like this; it’s morale boosting for our youngsters to share the dressing room with top international players. This is beneficial; it’s cricket and it’s entertainment. Until international cricket is played in Pakistan, League Cricket will keep the international vibe alive for Pakistan.”
India is a sore point these days (especially in the movie business) and I asked Afridi if he saw integration between the two countries as far as Pakistan Super League is concerned.
“I think we need to focus on standing on our own two feet first,” he was quick to respond. “We should not look here or there; there is actually no need to. We have South Africa as the perfect example; they were nowhere before the 1992 World Cup. No team would tour South Africa and they didn’t go anywhere either. But they strengthened their own core so impressively and gave a fantastic performance in the ’92 World Cup. We have to raise our standard so high that people come to us themselves. There are world-class players from other countries who have approached me to be part of PSL this year. People are interested already. Our league should go from strength to strength. And games between India and Pakistan depend upon political relations; if they improve then so will the games,” he summed it up perfectly.
The conversation steered towards PSL’s entertainment value and the value of star players. All five teams – Islamabad United, Peshawer Zalmi, Lahore Qalanders, Karachi Kings and Quetta Gladiators – has a balance of cricket greats and players that are referred to as ‘star performers’ even if many of them are retired. I asked Lala what factors contributed to making a player with star value. When it came to Pakistani cricket today, there weren’t many players who made the crowd go wild as madly as Shahid Afridi did when he stepped out to play. That kind of madness; where did it stem from?
“A star performer is made primarily because of his performance,” he stated. “If people hoot and holler after him it’s because he’s been performing well and has the credentials. Some stars are, by the grace of God, created overnight while others take time to get up there but it’s always performance based. They are game-winners, match winners. And there are so many in this league this year.
“So a star is made because of his performance,” he continued, “and then of course, his character and personality beyond the game takes him further. What does a player do ‘off the field’ that builds his persona? Each person has his own niche, like I work with the Foundation but everyone has an individual way of spending time. People learn with time and age about what is important and what should be priority.”
Many cricket legends of yesteryear felt that the T-20 format had made the ‘gentleman’s game’ very commercial. What did Lala feel about speedy cricket?
“There are people, cricket lovers, who don’t have the time to watch a test match or even a day’s play and T20 is a format tailor made for them because they can watch the entire show within three hours,” he emphasized on moving on with the times. “I don’t think it (T-20) has spoiled conventional cricket but has accelerated it. Things must change with time and yes, cricket as a game has evolved too.”
Lastly, as his managers started hovering around him, I asked Shahid Afridi how different the PSL vibe was this year, compared to the first tournament held in Dubai last year.
“PSL had a fantastic vibe last year and Inshallah this year will be even better,” he concluded on an optimistic note. “All teams are extremely balanced and they are all super competitive. I’ll definitely try to perform well and I play from Peshawer so that will be my priority but this is for Pakistan. PSL is intended to boost Pakistan; I feel all franchises are my own.”