Are you a T20 opener facing Shaheen Afridi? Be afraid, be very afraid

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First the good news. You’re an opener. This is a T20. The field is up, the ball is hard, it’s the best time to bat.

Now the bad news. The guy about to run in to bowl is Shaheen Shah Afridi*.

Your guard is set. You’ve done some visualisation. Adjusted your eyes to the light. Loosened the arms and shoulders. Made sure the blood is pumping in your feet. Most importantly, you’ve fist-bumped your partner.

The analyst has spoken to you or maybe he sent you some notes on WhatsApp. If they’re honest and rational and keep emotion out of this, they will have told you there’s a good chance you might not survive this first over. Maybe they put it out there in a cold, hard figure: there’s a one in three chance you won’t survive this over.

Wait, what? One in three? For batters, but even more for openers like yourself, who live against the overwhelming reality that one teensy-weensy delivery out of the millions they face can ruin a life, one in three is not great odds at all. Sure, the calculus is a crude one: the analyst might have told you that since his T20 debut in February 2018, Afridi has taken a wicket in the first over 20 times in 61 innings (and once he took two in the first over, so 21 wickets in first overs altogether). Second place is no place (Imad Wasim with 13, if somebody asks). Crude, yes, but you know it’s not untrue.

Now is not the time, but cricket might start noting an equivalent metric for bowlers, of the first 10-balls strike rate of a batter it has started paying heed to.

Forget that. If the analyst is good, he would have cushioned this with more positive reinforcement. Such as that you survive two of out three. And that of the times Afridi has struck in the first over, he has ended up on the losing side 12 times. So, even if you fail, you might win which, let’s be real, is good to say but more complicated to feel.

Anyway, at least you know what’s coming. To be prepared is half the victory they say. Afridi is tall and left-armed, so there is the angles and the release points to contend with but it’s not an unorthodox action. The wrist is a little wild, with more whip game going on than Indiana Jones but overall, this is not Jasprit Bumrah or Lasith Malinga. Neither is it the side-armed sling of a Wahab Riaz or Mitchell Starc.

If you are right-handed, he is most probably going to go very full and bring it back into you. Sometimes it’s absolute banana-swing and if you’re lucky, it’s going to go down leg for wides, or strike you outside leg. Nice sighters when you think about it. Except, he is just tuning his radar. Very quickly, he is going to get one right and then, well, cricket has so evolved we now have smart balls with chips in them recording all kinds of data, but the ol’ swing-backer from the left-armer to the right-hand batter remains, on most days, incomputable.

If there is any swing, he will get it in this over, no matter if it is Dubai, Lahore or Manchester. If it’s not banana, it’ll be the bendy-straw kind: straight for 90%, then a late, sudden bend. Also, he needs no time to nail the yorker, the immaculate kind that slips underneath the toe-end of a bat wherever it may be. Given that controlling a hard, shiny new ball and its swing is difficult enough, it’s a little special how quickly he gets that right.

The bullish voice in your head is telling you that it’s fine, we have de-weaponised the yorker. But you are a batter and so there is a cautionary voice too, telling you that for an incoming yorker from a left-arm bowler, your balance needs to be perfect. And at the start of an innings that can be the most difficult thing to do.

Also, sometimes it won’t swing. It’ll just be quick, straight and full. Good luck with that one.

Or, you know, it will look straight, wobble a bit and then… no, did that actually go the other way a little?

There is a chance, of course, that he doesn’t go for the yorker straightaway. Maybe a double bluff, maybe a mood thing, maybe a match-up. He might surprise you with a bouncer and here, his height and angles, and the way the ball climbs up all over you from that blind spot – at serious pace – can really work against you. Mostly, just duck. And say a little prayer.

The problem is he can get movement off a surface too. In which case watch out because he’ll pull back from yorker-length and invite you to drive. Turn that invitation down. It’s only over one, there’s 19 others to pilfer from. If you are a left-handed batter, he can get it to move away. He can also get it to nip back in. Right through that gate we have talked about keeping shut.

Being left-handed, by the way, is not a massive help. Eight of those 21 victims have been left-handed batters. Yorkers that swung, yorkers that pitched and seamed, good-length balls that seamed; all told, he is getting left-handed batters like he gets right-handed, mostly bowled or leg-before.

You could go hard at him from the very beginning, like Luke Ronchi or Tom Banton. He will feed those drives. You might even charge him. But he will get you out because it’s what he does. The absolute pits is when he will do you from the coaching manuals. Outswing, outswing – and now everyone knows what’s coming because that’s what they teach you as soon as you can hold a ball – and boom, inswing. Bye, bye, Jonny Bairstow.

If your luck is out, your partner will face the first five balls of the opening over, get through them, get set and then leave you the last ball to face. Thanks. Because that can also be enough.

You know what? Make your own luck. Be smart. Make your partner take strike.

*If you are Indian, as on Sunday, you haven’t faced him. Well, one ODI, three years ago which went well. But it doesn’t count because he is not that bowler now.



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