St John’s Wood was a sea of green and white on Sunday. Outside Lord’s, it was hard to move for the crowd. Air horns hooted, cars bedecked with the flag of Pakistan crawled up the Wellington Road and everywhere held aloft were pictures and signs. “Pakistan Zindabad”, ‘”Be Afridi Be Very Afridi”. And there, towering above the masses, was a giant poster of the great Pashtun, upright, right arm raised aloft and finger pointing to the sky in celebration as another wicket fell to him.
Of all the magnificent cricketers on display, it is Shahid Afridi, the mavericks’ maverick, who has epitomised what this wonderful tournament has been about. Has anyone, in any sport, ever radiated more unalloyed, exuberant joy at success, not just for himself but on behalf of his team-mates and his nation? Afridi is not for the purist but the romantic. He swashes and buckles and the Pakistani people idolise him for it. Once, in a Test match against England in Faisalabad, he belted his way in a flurry of sixes to within eight of a remarkable first-innings century. When next the time came to bat, the ground was packed. In the minutes after Andrew Flintoff removed his off stump first ball, the stadium drained of spectators as if a giant plughole had been unblocked. That is charisma.
Afridi epitomised Pakistan’s achievement in raising themselves from a ramshackle start to gather unstoppable momentum so even as fine and versatile a side as Sri Lanka had no answer. They were led excellently by Younus Khan, a man who understands the difference between stick and carrot, cajoling his side away from intensity and towards enjoyment of the moment. Be grateful to be playing, he seemed to say, we are the lucky ones. Let us play for those less fortunate.
The response in Pakistan will be enormous, for the game has deep roots there. Perhaps this win will serve to sustain them, inspire the next generation which is queueing in vast numbers to take part. Geoff Lawson, their former coach, tells of an initiative for under-16s, Hunt for Heroes, run by the former Test player Haroon Rashid and set up in all the big centres such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi, to find the next generation. For the opening day in Karachi, they anticipated 100 applicants at most: 6,000 turned up and the area around the venue was gridlocked. It was the same countrywide. All they want now is the opportunity. Younus pleads for international tours to Pakistan.
“It is not our fault,” he says, and he is right. But he knows, in the light of what happened in Lahore on that March day this year, that it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to resume tours. Now it is the duty of the International Cricket Council and its member countries to ensure the profile of Pakistan cricket is maintained. Specifically, the England and Wales Cricket Board can take the lead by offering fine neutral venues during our summer, not just to the benefit of Pakistan cricket but to that of those Pakistanis who have made their homes here.
If neither the men’s nor the women’s final produced the spectacle that would have been hoped for, then that is often the way. But the tournament has been a triumph from the opening ceremony with the comedian doing a wonderful impression of an upper-class twit (what do you mean, Duke of Kent?), to the celebrations after the close. Running the men’s and women’s tournaments in parallel was inspirational and should be repeated at all major ICC events. The whole thing was succinct, beautifully encapsulated in a timescale that has left us wanting more. That, all governing bodies take note, is how it should be. The joys of cricket have been brought to a fresh audience as well as converting many agnostics or sheer atheists to the format.
There have been spectacular matches, none more so than the run chase masterminded on Friday by Claire Taylor and Beth Morgan for England women. But Pakistan’s triumph over South Africa was a seminal moment, Sri Lanka’s embarrassment of Australia instructive, and West Indies’ defeat of India exhilarating. Individually the skills shown render as Neanderthal those of even two years ago.
In a format that was once regarded as a one-sided slugathon, it is the bowlers, hamstrung at every turn by legislation – wides, bouncer and fielding restrictions, susceptible to daft bats and short boundaries, free hits, limited overs, no throwing the ball in on the bounce to scuff it, no waving your arms around to distract the batsman – have still found the wherewithal to fool, bamboozle and generally dominate the game.
Artists such as Ajantha Mendis, Umar Gul and Afridi have set new benchmarks. With the bat Tillakaratne Dilshan was deemed man of the tournament but others left their mark, among them the mighty Chris Gayle, clinical, cerebral Kumar Sangakkara, and Jacques Kallis, whose more prosaic skills served South Africa so well. Then there was the fielding, with catching beyond belief and such athleticism.
If we want one image beyond that of Afridi in his pomp to sustain us until the next tournament (too early actually, in the Caribbean next spring) then it is of Angelo Mathews of Sri Lanka, defying gravity to turn six runs into three.