Wednesday’s titanic semi-final between India and Pakistan could hinge on the contest between two great entertainers who have reinvented themselves as ruthlessly efficient performers at this World Cup.Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi and India all-rounder Yuvraj Singh have often been derided as “Hollywood” cricketers, capable of turning on the style when conditions suit them, but just as likely to go missing when their teams need them most.However, by curbing some of their natural instincts and performing with a new maturity, the duo have taken their games to new heights.
Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi earned his nickname for smashing the ball out of the ground with a ferocity and regularity the game had rarely seen.These days the big scores are few and far between, but the Pakistan captain’s capacity to make an explosive impact on games make his moniker as fitting as ever.Now it is the show-stopping quality of Afridi’s bowling that is clearing the bars.In seven matches at the 2011 Cricket World Cup, he has taken 21 wickets at a staggering average of 10.71.Having only taken four or more wickets on five occasions 312 one-day internationals, he has achieved the feat four times in seven matches at the tournament.His ability to intersperse conventional leg-spinners with googlies, top-spinners and quicker deliveries on the slow, low, wickets of the subcontinent have rendered him nigh-on unplayable and been the single biggest factor in Pakistan’s run to the semi-finals.Afridi’s combination with paceman Umar Gul, who has 14 wickets, has helped the side overcome the shortcomings of an inconsistent batting line-up to beat Sri Lanka, Australia and the West Indies en route to the last four.
With his constant flow of wickets, Afridi has largely led by example, but his leadership has also caught the eye for the way he has galvanised a notoriously fractious squad and imbued them with more energy and efficiency in the field.”Everybody is standing behind him at the World Cup,” said Pakistan batsman Misbah-ul-Haq.”I think there are always differences in opinion but we always talk to the captain about what he thinks. He’s really good at that. “He listens to the players, especially the senior players and the coaches, we just decide everything with a good co-ordination, and that’s why everything is going well and the team is performing well. It’s a big thing actually.”Originally selected for Pakistan in 1996 as a leg-spinning all-rounder, Afridi shot to fame at the tender age of 16 with the fastest one-day hundred off 37 balls in his first international innings.A compulsive slogger, he has hit the highest-number of sixes in the history of one-day cricket and three of the seven fastest centuries.But while his batting has always been inconsistent and is showing signs of terminal decline – he has just one fifty in his last 21 innings and a tournament average of 10.83 – as a bowler he is undoubtedly at the peak of his powers.
Having declared in 2009 that he was a bowler first and a batsman second, he has become an undisputed master of his craft, as anyone who witnessed his devastating bursts against Kenya, Sri Lanka, Canada and the West Indies would testify.The one worry for Pakistan would be Afridi’s record against India, whose batsmen are notorious for their mastery of spin bowling.In 63 matches against their arch-rivals, he has 38 wickets at a decidedly ordinary average of 55.50.
England fans will remember Yuvraj Singh as the man who gave Stuart Broad an unforgettable lesson in just how tough international cricket can be.In launching the fresh-faced seamer for six sixes in an over at the 2007 World Twenty20, India’s middle order mauler showed his immense talent for taking attacks apart.Indeed, Yuvraj has long been recognised as one of the most exciting and destructive performers in the game, as a tally of 216 sixes in international cricket and a Twenty20 strike-rate in excess of 150 would confirm.As with many players of his ilk, Yuvraj’s undoing has tended to be the absence of a Plan B in bowler-friendly conditions, and a run of low scores saw him dropped from the India side for the first time last year.Perhaps it was the wake-up call he needed because something has come over Yuvraj at this World Cup and India are reaping the rewards.In curbing his instinct to go after every ball, he has converted himself into India’s “Mr Dependable”, judging the pace of a run chase to see him team to victory in a manner that has drawn comparisons with Michael Bevan, Australia’s former master finisher.
Although free-scoring openers Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar have been grabbing the headlines, Yuvraj has played an influential role in four of Indies five victories at the tournament.In the group games against Ireland and the Netherlands, he entered the fray with India wobbling and steered them over the line with measured fifties, while against the Windies he lifted an otherwise indifferent batting display with an imperious 113.But the left-hander’s finest hour came in the quarter-final against Australia after India had been reduced to 187-5 chasing 261 on a slow Ahmedabad track.Aided by Suresh Raina in a partnership of 74, Yuvraj struck a match-winning unbeaten 57, sealing India’s place in the last four by cracking a Brett Lee yorker through the covers for four.
“Finishing a game gives me a lot of confidence going into the next match,” said Yuvraj, who has also taken 11 wickets with his left-arm spin.”I’m just happy about how I am hitting the ball, my responsibility is to bat till the end whether we are batting first or chasing a target.”Overall, Yuvraj has struck 341 runs in six matches, with one hundred and four fifties at a staggering average of 113.66.And with Wednesday’s showdown taking place at Yuvraj’s home ground of Mohali, few would bet against another influential display from India’s man of the moment. BBC