Out of the sky the ball fell, like a stray from a meteorite shower. By striking a towering six with little more than a push, Shahid Afridi brought a touch of World Cup class to the PipeMaster North Staffordshire & South Cheshire League and a new meaning to hitting the roof.
The structure in question belonged to the swish dressing-room and pavilion complex at Longton Cricket Club, an oasis of sporting splendour in one of the toughest housing estates in Stoke-on-Trent. Afridi's blow cracked a tile and left the president of Little Stoke, for whom the Pakistan all-rounder guested on Saturday, unsure whether to grin or grimace. "I hope they don't send me the bill," said Rod Tobias.
Longton had the last laugh, soon getting Afridi out cheaply and winning comfortably to strengthen their position as leaders. Importantly for a league where admission is free, even when a Test star is on view, they also enjoyed good bar takings from a crowd which topped the 350-mark.
Afridi's presence accounted for the above-average gathering. A week earlier, in the first of his two matches as replace-ment professional while South Africa's Justin Kemp spent a fortnight with Worcestershire, he had powered Little Stoke to victory at Checkley in the Staffordshire Moorlands. His score of 112 came off 70 balls in 75 minutes, and he took 3 for 35 with his unusually quick leg-spin bowling.
The challenge of containing Afridi has defeated some of the planet's finest bowlers, let alone the weekend trundlers of the Potteries and district. At 17, in his second limited-overs international, he bludgeoned a world-record 37-ball century against Sri Lanka. Having failed with the bat (but taken 5 for 52) in his first Test, against Australia, he scored 141 against India in his second.
That mercurial start established a pattern for Afridi, who is now 23. At his best he is virtually unstoppable. At his worst he appears impatient and ill-disciplined, unable to control his instinct to attack every delivery. After being largely responsible for taking Leicestershire to the C&G final in 2001, he was out for 20 in 10 balls at Lord's when the innings needed an anchor.
This year's World Cup in South Africa should have been the ideal stage for Afridi. Instead he became embroiled in a "sledging" row with India's Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh, and it was no real surprise when Pakistan left him out of their squad for England.
After a spell with Derbyshire the free spirit found himself a free agent. The former Port Vale footballer Phil Sproson, who plays for Little Stoke's second XI as well as being a client manager for Afridi's adviser, was instrumental in bringing him to the club. Despite a name redolent of the industrial Six Towns, Little Stoke is a village which dates back to Domesday times and their scenic home, the Sid Jenkins Ground, lies on the rural fringes of the town of Stone.
The motto on their crest, Non progredi est regredi ("Not to advance is to go back"), seemed made for Afridi. Chauffeured by a local balti magnate, he arrived at Longton in a red cricket shirt bearing the badge of the Non-Descript Club which contains an overflowing pint of ale. The previous day he had played for them in a benefit match at Finchley, and legend already claimed he had placed his sixes between parked cars.
The scene was set for an afternoon to recall the league's heyday. Forty years ago, Gary Sobers played for Norton, once taking five wickets in a maiden over. Two other great West Indians, Frank Worrell and Sonny Ramadhin, had stints here, while a long line of home-grown players have gone on to higher things, from Sydney Barnes through the likes of Ken Higgs, Bob Taylor, David Steele and Kim Barnett to the present Warwickshire bowler and Little Stoke discovery Alan Richardson.
Little Stoke were 31 for 1 when Afridi came in. His first seven balls produced two sixes and a single, yet from the eighth he skied the ball to a widish gully. For the bowler, Dave Edwards (who runs Stoke City's football in the community scheme), and the catcher, Gareth Morris (whose day job is manning the council hotline about parking tickets), it was a coup to be raucously celebrated. The visitors' chairman, Barry Roden of PipeMaster fame, waxed rueful. "If he'd stayed in a bit longer, the mobile phones would have been coming out and the taxis arriving."
Shahid, who has flayed bowlers from Hong Kong to Houston and from Singapore to St Lucia, could not disguise his disappointment at failing to put either the "long" or the "ton" in Longton. He batted for five minutes and faced eight balls for his 13. "It was a slower delivery and I didn't read it," he admitted as Little Stoke slumped to 132 all out.
Afridi fared no better with the ball. Bowling in a cap, à la Geoff Boycott, his figures were 0 for 17 in four overs. Longton, led by a classy 67 not out from 15-year-old schoolboy Pete Wilshaw, reached their target in fewer than 23 overs with seven wickets in hand.
However, fans of cavalier cricket will be pleased to hear that Afridi will not be changing his approach. "Captains and coaches sometimes say I don't listen, but playing aggressively is my natural game," he said. "They tell me not to hit certain balls, just to stop them. I think I'm the best judge of what to do in the middle. What happened here is the way it goes. You can get a hundred against Australia in one innings and zero against Bangladesh the next."
The Little Stoke contingent were suitably chastened. Rod Tobias reflected that it could have been worse: in 1971 he played for the seconds when they were dismissed for one run at Wombourne. "I got two wickets before they knocked it off," he said. Barry Roden steeled himself to face Longton's followers, among whom he grew up, in the bar.
First, though, he dug into his pocket to hand over a hefty chunk of Little Stoke's nightly bar receipts to the stand-in professional. Shahid Afridi now sported a "Proud to be a Pakistani" t-shirt, which carried greater significance than he may have appreciated in an area where the far right is seeking a foothold. Next week he could be playing for another club in the league, Leek. Rooftop spectating is not advised.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies