There is a bit of aspirational professionalism in most Associate teams. In some ways they are the feebler shadows of more accomplished full-member teams. Afghanistan, though, is almost all heart and joy. This isn’t to say they don’t play like professionals, but they have the soul of amateurs. (Full Coverage|| Fixtures||Photos)
The professionalism was evident in the way they bounced back from a wobbly 86 for 4, batting cautiously for a short while to wade over the crisis before they turned it on again at the finish.
More of that free-flowing spirit was uncorked on Saturday night when they crushed Zimbabwe to move on to the main draw where they have the skill to create an upset or two. Unsurprisingly, the chief alchemist of happiness was Mohammad Shahzad.
Pity Mark Nicholas wasn’t on air for the game. The posh voice of hyperbole might well have crooned grandiosely: ‘Here comes Shahzad, here comes entertainment’. And he would have been spot on this time. Shahzad is easily the most entertaining batsman in world cricket today and the man with the fastest bat speed in business. A kind of batsman who makes even adults shake heads and laugh like kids.
It’s difficult not to like him. Cheeky, full of dare, generous adipose tissue that helps ramp up his adorable quotient, the underdog associate status that doesn’t hurt his cause, but above all that audacious headspace that produces such unadulterated joy, not seen since the heydays of Shahid Afridi. Lest it be mistaken, there is not much of a similarity in the style for Shahzad is a batsman with a wider array of shots.
Afridi was a heaver, Shahzad is a cheeky strokemaker; Afridi a slogger, Shahzad a basher. But like Afridi, Shahzad finds it difficult to resist having a go.
For that matter Afghanistan, generally, find it difficult to resist having a go. And so, it was really fascinating to see them react the way they did at 86 for 4. Shahzad had settled down with a cup of tea, and it was a make or a break moment in the middle. Would Afghanistan continue to go for the broke and disintegrate? Will they be daring losers who know how to win your heart but not the battle?
Luckily for them, they were steered through the mini-crisis by the 31-year-old Mohammad Nabi and the 29-year-old Samiullah Shenwari, the most experienced players who have played in every one-day game their country has ever played. Their story, like most of the Afghan players, is known: Russian war made them refugees in Pakistan where they fell in love with the game, and how well they have carried on with that love affair. This situation wasn’t new to Shenwari, who had lifted Afghanistan from the despair of 97 for 7 with a 147-ball 97 to help them chase down Scotland’s 216 in the last World Cup in New Zealand.
They pushed and drove for singles and Nabi survived a stumping chance on 20, a match-turning moment — he had charged down to the impressive Wellington Masakadza, who had the skill to tie down Shahzad for two overs with the new ball, but the ‘keeper Richmond Mutumbami made a mess of it. Had he done his job, Afghanistan would have been 96 for 5, and who knows what could have transpired. As it turned out, Nabi and Shenwari calmly batted them out of trouble before they went hammer and tongs to reach a matchwinning total.
The muggy afternoon, though, would be remembered for Shahzad. Cameras obviously love him; they caught his antics even when he is sitting with his feet up at the dressing room balcony, exhorting his team-mates, showing his disappointment at a defensive option taken, or his pain when a catch was taken by a Zimbabwean.
It wasn’t reckless hit-every-ball kind of a knock even though it may have appeared so. The two overs of respect he showed to the left-arm spinner Wellington was a case in point, especially the second over where he actually defended a few. Even his bashing of the seamers had method to the madness. Impish and zany, yes, but never heedless slogging. He crash-bang-walloped the young Tendai Chatara, who has come back just now after a lengthy injury break, his left leg was in a cast for months.
His speeds wasn’t at the level of his pre-injury days and this Nagpur pitch was sluggish. The third delivery of his first over was short and it came off slowly off the track — Shahzad had the cricketing intelligence not to try pulling it in the traditional fashion, but instead waited for the ball to arrive at him sluggishly and just bashed the daylights out of it, flat-batting it past the startled bowler and over the apprehensive umpire.
The next one was quicker but short again and this time the bat-speed was a blur of delight. The ball flew to the point boundary, and the fans started to scream his name. Then, he unfurled a proper hook, getting inside the line of the bouncer to dispatch it to the fine-leg boundary.
The final delivery was an intended slice that flew off the outside edge to thirdman boundary. A hat-trick of fours flooded in the fourth over, bowled by Donald Tiripano. The first was a ‘sweet-as’ shot. A short-of-length that nibbled in towards off that seemingly had him cramped for room but he arched back, got his bat in position, and played the deftest of the upper cuts. As if he was shackled by his own deftness, he stepped away to leg side next delivery to play a crunchy on-the-up punch through covers.
In the next over, he went down on his knee to dispose Williams over wide long-off but fell a couple of balls later, reverse-sweeping straight to point. A mini-flutter followed but Nabi and Shenwari eased up their nerves and posted a total that proved beyond Zimbabwe, who crumbled on this track that aided turn. The best line of the evening came from Afghanistan’s captain Asghar Stanikzai about how the team lets Shahzad do his thing. “When Shahzad takes responsibility, it’s not good for him.”
Brief scores: Aghanistan 186/6 (Mohammad Nabi 52 off 32 balls, Samiullah Shenwari 43 off 37, Mohammad Shahzad 40 off 23; Tinashe Panyangara 3/32) beat Zimbabwe 127 all out in 19.4 overs (Rashid Khan 3/11, Hamid Hassan 2/11) by 59 runs.
BRIEF SCORES: Scotland 78 for 2 in 8 overs (M Cross 22, K Coetzer 20 n.o.; A Khan 1/11) bt Hong Kong 127 for 7 in 20 ovs (M Chapman 40, A Rath 21; M Machan 2-26) by 8 wickets on D/LMethod.