Karachi: If fan following was a yardstick of greatness in cricket, Pakistan’s colourful all-rounder Shahid Afridi would probably be ranked his country’s greatest ever player. Ever since he hit a 37-ball hundred in only his second one-day international — against Sri Lanka in Nairobi in 1996 — Afridi has been a cult figure in Pakistan.

Shahid Afridi
Shahid Afridi

His announcement last week that he was quitting one-day cricket after next year’s World Cup has left his millions of fans pondering: who to watch after him? No cricketer in Pakistan has had the persona and the box office pull of the hyperactive, big-hitting Afridi, who filled stadiums throughout his career — and often emptied them when he was out.

The fervour for watching him bat was such that when he was dismissed first ball by an unknown Zimbabwe bowler in Peshawar a few days after his world record hundred, the crowd chanted: “Try ball, let Afridi bat again!”

Girls swooned for a glimpse of him and many wanted to marry him. In 2004 two women came in bridal dress to a ground and were only convinced to leave after meeting him face to face. Afridi won hearts with his unorthodox, buccaneering style — ignoring the coaching manual to rely on swagger and raw talent.

It was an approach tailor-made for TV and Afridi’s career coincided with the explosion of Pakistani media that followed General Pervez Musharraf’s liberalisation of the sector in 2002.