The Afridi bowling Uganda to a brighter tomorrow

Uganda’s East African neighbor Kenya may be considered by most to have a much richer cricket history, thanks to five straight World Cup appearances beginning in 1996 including a trip to the semi-finals in 2003, but Uganda has its share of achievements as well. A little-known fact is that a pair of Ugandans debuted in the World Cup long before anyone from Ireland or Afghanistan. John Nagenda and Sam Walusimbi opened the bowling and batting respectively for East Africa – a squad comprising players from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia – against New Zealand on the first day of the inaugural tournament at Edgbaston in 1975.

Afridi knew nothing of this, let alone much else to do with Ugandan cricket culture, before arriving to work on behalf of his uncle Mushtaq, but before long he saw that cricket was plentiful in a healthy club scene. Former Ugandan pace bowler Asadu Seiga was friendly with Afridi, and invited him to come play a leather-ball match for the first time for Seiga’s club Tornado CC.

“I played one game for his club. From there I started my career,” Afridi says. “When I played the first game, from there they saw me. My friend Asadu told me, ‘You can play hard ball. So why are you not trying?’ So from there I started to play. Then I tried to come into the national team.

“He was the one who brought me in. Every time he was telling me, ‘Afridi do that. Push yourself, work hard. You will get a chance. I want to see you in a yellow national-team jersey for Uganda.’ So he helped me a lot.”

Seiga may have helped Afridi get exposure locally, but Afridi has helped Uganda in a big way at recent tournaments. At WCL Division Four in Malaysia this past May, his mystery spin – “80% legspin, 10% offspin and 10% carom balls”, as he puts it – produced a tournament-best 15 wickets to propel Uganda to the tournament title. He followed that up at the ICC World T20 Africa T20 Region B Qualifier with another tournament-best haul of 13 wickets to help Uganda progress to the next phase of qualifying.

“He’s been bowling well, and has the ball he pushes with his finger and it’s not easy to play it,” Uganda captain Roger Mukasa says about Afridi’s variations. “People have been struggling with it a lot. His performance is so big for the team and he works hard. He’s played a big role in the team especially in bowling. He’s the guy who gets wickets for us and batting, he can hit the ball far.”

Though bowling is his main weapon, Afridi is also capable of producing blistering batting cameos in the middle order just like his uncle. At 2017 WCL Division Three in Uganda, he clobbered an unbeaten 108 off 71 balls featuring 10 sixes in a win over Malaysia while his 51 off 17 balls against Vanuatu at Division Four got Uganda out of a sticky situation to lift them to another win.

Afridi’s success is also significant due to the turbulent history of the Asian population in Uganda, who were mostly driven out by Idi Amin in 1972, early in the dictator’s reign. Only in recent years have Asian cricketers been accepted into the national team, and Afridi says he owes a huge debt of gratitude to the support shown to him by captain Mukasa, vice-captain Brian Masaba, and senior spinner Frank Nsubuga.

“Every time they push me and they help me, just saying, ‘We are with you, we are with you. Push yourself, work hard.’ Everyone in the team is with me and they help me a lot,” Afridi says.

“They’re saying I’m a good bowler and I’m playing for Uganda. I’m in the national team so from there they try to push me more. They help me and push me so that the more that I can do more for my country, for Uganda, I do more. So they help me a lot.”

Aside from Seiga, Mukasa, Masaba and Nsubuga, Afridi has also been motivated in a peculiar way by uncle Shahid. The Pakistan international Shahid’s career took off after a century in his first ODI innings against Sri Lanka as a 16-year-old in 1996, meaning he was hardly around while Irfan was growing up. Instead of getting hands-on tips, Irfan has taken to studying as much of his uncle’s video footage as he can in order to improve his own game.

“I just watch him on TV,” Afridi says. “The way he’s bowling, the way he runs up, the batting style, just I’m following from the TV. Mostly I’m watching his videos on YouTube, so I’m picking from there.

“Now he knows I’m playing for Uganda. After the 17-ball 51 runs, he heard the news so I got a text message from him saying, ‘Very well played.’ I’m feeling very happy and appreciate it from my uncle.”

As the start of WCL Division Three approaches in Oman, the starfish celebration may be ready to break out once again for Uganda. The jersey color might be a striking yellow instead of green and the hair a bit thinner on top, but there’s little doubt about the match-winning impact of another Afridi in international cricket.