From the invasion of India by the Mongols to the arrival of the Mughals, the mountainous terrain around Khyber Pass has seen many historical moments. In recent times, this area bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan is a strategic military hub for American forces fighting the Talibans.
But away from the conflict zone, the small village of Landi Kotal near Khyber Pass has grabbed the headlines for nurturing Pakistan’s new fast bowling sensation.
Ever since he was fast-tracked into the senior team, Shaheen Khan Afridi, 18, has enjoyed a fairytale start to his international career. Equally adept at swinging the ball and hurling toe-crushing yorkers, Afridi was the man of the series in the recent one day matches against New Zealand. In the match-ups between Australia and New Zealand in the UAE, the young tearaway not only shared the new ball, but was called upon by Captain Sarfraz Ahmed to bowl the last overs in two close games. Shaheen emerged as the hero in both these tight games, outwitting the likes of Glen Maxwell and Ross Taylor.
Adding allure to his dream run is his famous surname and his towering frame of six foot six inches. Shaheen belongs to the Afridi clan, an influential Pathan tribe (known as Pathans) residing in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Shahid Afridi, one of the most inspirational figures of Pakistan cricket who also had a swashbuckling start to his international career, has the same origins.
“Though Shahid played most of his cricket in Karachi, he has been a huge role model for cricketers among the Pathan community. I took to cricket because of Shahid Afridi. If someone from our community could make it so big, why not me? He was always a big motivation for any Pathan playing cricket,’’ says Riaz Afridi, Shaheen’s brother.
Riaz, who is also a fast bowler, broke into the Pakistan squad in 2004 and played a solitary Test match against Sri Lanka, claiming the prized scalps of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene before fading away.
"“We were seven brothers, but Shaheen was the most talented. He would accompany me to my practice sessions and was obsessed with the sport. After returning home, he would wear all my cricket gear and even had them on while going to bed.”" - Riaz Afridi, Shaheen’s brother
While he was playing the tape ball cricket in local tournaments, Shaheen’s big break came when he was selected for an under-15 age group trial being conducted in Peshawar.
But destiny had other plans.
“The trials were finished and I was walking towards the car park when I saw a young boy. He was late for the trial and was preparing to return. I could make out he had travelled a long way and I wanted to give him a chance.” said Saqib Fakhir, who is credited to have first spotted Shaheen.
"“I was not at home and my father did not allow Shaheen to attend the trial as it would have meant Shaheen would miss school. When I received a call from a distraught Shaheen, I managed to convince my father. But by the time Shaheen reached Peshawar, the trials were over.”" - Riaz Afridi, Shaheen’s brother "“There was no time for him to change into his cricket uniform and I told him to bowl wearing his salwar kameez. He made an impact right away with his action and pace. We selected him and in the next few months we worked on his bowling. He was a prodigious talent and a quick learner.” " - Saqib Fakhir
Life moved at a frenetic pace for Shaheen whose videos started doing the rounds in the cricketing circles in Pakistan. Destined for bigger things, Shaheen had to move from his native town of Landi Kotal to the National Cricket Academy, where the likes of Mushtaq Ahmed and Aaqib Javed were floored by his talent.
But his first brush with stardom came when he picked up eight wickets in an innings in his maiden first class game. Playing for Khan Research Laboratories against Rawalpindi in a Quaid-E-Azam trophy, a four-day domestic tournament, Shaheen picked a solitary wicket in the first innings and was heartbroken.
"“He was really disappointed and spoke to me on how he could bounce back. I just boosted his confidence.”" - Riaz Afridi, Shaheen’s brother
Shaheen was on fire in the second innings, gunning down batsmen with his searing pace and swing. He was hailed as the most successful Pakistan debutant in a first class game.
Then came the under-19 World Cup in New Zealand and once again, he set the stage on fire, adding Indian coach and batting legend Rahul Dravid to his growing list of admirers.
The teenager had very little time to soak in the adulation while he was thrown into the deep end.
This time he was up against some of the biggest names in cricket as he marked his run-up in the Pakistan Super League (PSL). Shaheen failed to pick up any wickets in the first three games.
Innocently, he offered to return the money that he was paid by the owners of his franchise-Lahore Qalandars. Persuaded to not lose heart, Shaheen bounced back in style, returning with jaw-dropping figures of 5 for 4 in one game. Playing against some of the best batsmen before full stadiums had done its work on Shaheen.
"“We Pathans have talent, and because we are from the mountains, we are inherently strong. But we are like uncut diamonds that need to be polished. Luckily for Shaheen, he had mentors like Mushtaq (Ahmed) and Aaqib (Javed) who groomed him.”" - Riaz Afridi, Shaheen’s brother
“My advice to him is to stay grounded. Luckily he is mature for his age and has handled the stardom gracefully,’’ added Riaz.
In a classic Afridi versus Afridi match-up in the PSL, the youngster rattled the stumps of the former Pakistan skipper but refused to celebrate out of sheer respect towards one of his role models.
Shaheen’s next challenge is a tough series in South Africa. But his biggest test will be the World Cup in England, with the player being touted as Pakistan’s main strike bowler.
(The author is a television producer working with different sports networks in India and abroad. He has extensively covered previous editions of Asian Games and Commonwealth Games for both print and television.)
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