Shaheen Shah Afridi: From Landi Kotal to top of cricketing world

How a lanky pacer went from a village in Pakistan’s remote north to being named cricketer of the year.

shaheen shah afridi celebrates
Afridi made his international debut in 2018, just a year after playing his maiden first-class match [David Klein/Reuters]

Along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border lies the remote village of Landi Kotal in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan.

Here, residents live simply, away from the fast pace of city life. There are hardly any cricket grounds, let alone any sports academies or facilities.

So it was nothing short of a miracle when a lanky fast-bowler called Shaheen Shah Afridi emerged from that village, donning the national colours and taking the world by storm.

The left-arm bowler knows how to strike the ball hard and clean, as witnessed in a Pakistan Super League match recently. Just the mention of his name across Pakistan is enough to stir excitement.

Standing six feet, six inches tall (198cm), Afridi has a calm demeanour and a pleasant smile.

Afridi is the youngest of seven brothers. He says the environment at home that buzzed with cricket enthusiasm was his biggest inspiration.

“Everyone, all of my brothers, are cricketers and I was inspired by watching them,” Afridi told Al Jazeera.

“The biggest plus point of my life was that I have an older brother who was aware of cricket [Riaz, a former Test cricketer]. I followed him and he is my anchor in learning the sport.”

Afridi made his international debut in 2018, just a year after playing his maiden first-class match. His resilience and attitude have helped Pakistan on various occasions on the field.

The most memorable, of course, was his opening burst in Dubai last year that helped Pakistan beat India for the first time in a cricket world cup.

Riding on that, the Pakistan pacer was awarded the Sir Garfield Sobers Trophy after being named the International Cricket Council (ICC) men’s cricketer of the year.

Young talent

Afridi started playing school cricket in grade six for fun. Over the next four years, his talent grabbed the attention of those around him.

Everyone in the region who saw him instinctively knew Afridi had what it takes to succeed in the sport, following in the footsteps of his namesake, the great Shahid Afridi, who announced himself on the international stage at the age of 16.

But this Afridi knew the challenges he was facing in that part of the world.

“Although I was mostly playing to enjoy the sport, everyone would tell me I’m very talented. But the biggest hurdle was being in the remote region. We don’t have access to grounds, facilities or academies. So it was very difficult to play cricket most of the time.”

When his family moved to Peshawar, 40 minutes away from Landi Kotal, in 2015, Afridi enrolled at Islamia Cricket Academy.

“It was during this time I realised and faced the reality and difficulty surrounding cricket,” Afridi said.

He watched cricket stars from KPK such as Umar Gul visit the academy and practice. As a 15-year-old then, Afridi was caught in moments of awe, now sharing a space with prominent cricketers.

As his excitement for the sport shot up, becoming an international cricketer was a dream he did not want to give up on.

“I watched Gul and I wanted to learn from him. I felt so happy and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Later, I kept repeating to myself that maybe I will play cricket in the future and represent Pakistan,” he said.

“My brother was always there but I also admired Shahid Afridi. It’s great that we share the same surname, he will always be my hero.”

Admitting that he was constantly showered with love and support from his parents, his family was worried about Afridi’s health from time to time.

Being the youngest also meant that everyone around him was extremely possessive, Afridi added with a laugh.

“Everyone was worried that I’m so young, I may get hurt by a ball. I fractured my arm on multiple occasions,” he added.

With age came wisdom

But as he got older, his skills and performance improved. He started gaining more attention across the region.

Through the academy, he paved his way in getting selected for Federally Administered Tribal Areas under-16 side the same year – where he was introduced to hard-ball cricket for the first time.

On the day of Afridi’s selection, imposter syndrome played with his nerves.

“During the selection process, I told my brother that there’s no chance I will be able to get the nod. I questioned that so many young talented players are coming, why would anyone even bother picking me.”

Afridi bowled just two balls before he was asked to step aside. Little did he know that the door to stardom had just opened.

“I got selected just after two balls,” Afridi said in sheer excitement. “I couldn’t believe that I was good enough.”

But his selection meant that Afridi will now have to travel across the country to Karachi where the under-16 team had a camp.

As he set foot in Pakistan’s largest city for the first time, Afridi said he was shocked, wondering where in the world he was.

“It felt a bit odd coming to a big city for the first time. I grew up in a village and then suddenly I’m in this unfamiliar world. I learned a lot from that experience, I made friends, received mentorship, it was a very different feeling.”

From there, Afridi’s flair was quick to receive attention. He secured his selection for the Under-16 tour in Australia in 2015. The young boy was now going international.

Following a decent outing, he was named for the Pakistan under-19 Asia Cup squad. With the spotlight on him increasing day by day, he was not only recruited to take part in the PSL but also donned the national colours for the first time in 2018.

The great game: India vs Pakistan

Fast-forward to October 24, 2021, in Dubai where it was time for  one of the most high-pressure games of the ICC men’s T20 world cup.

Cricket matches between India and Pakistan are considered one of the biggest rivalries in sports, watched by billions across the world.

The event is more than just a game. And Afridi made sure he delivered on the biggest stage of all.

Pakistan crushed India by 10 wickets, ending a two-decade losing streak, with Afridi getting rid of Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli to send the Dubai crowd wild, the ones supporting Pakistan at least.

Afridi is extremely proud when he recalls that day.

Being on the field that day felt very distinct for him, a feeling that could only be understood by someone who was there, in that moment, Afridi said.

“It’s incomparable to anything else out there. I remember, even when I was back in school, I would drop everything, everyone around me would drop everything, to go and watch India vs Pakistan match.

“Anyone who isn’t even a follower of cricket will watch the match. The pressure on October 24 was high, I could feel it, and I knew my performance would be remembered and define my cricketing journey. I’m happy we beat India that day, I can never forget that day.”

Despite being handed the biggest ICC prize, the boy from Landi Kotal has kept his feet on the ground.

“I don’t think much about the past and the future, I focus on the present. The present for me is everything.

“I haven’t changed, despite the busy schedule. Whenever I have time off, I visit my parents. I’m from the northern areas, life is difficult there without proper access to facilities.

“Imagine, if people there get proper access, they will be the future of the country, perhaps performing 10 times better than I do,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera