India threw up a surprise before the match. As the team turned up at the Dubai International Stadium and the warm-up started, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was seen handing over the team sheet to match referee Andy Pycroft. In a dead rubber, changes were expected. But both captain Rohit Sharma and his deputy Shikhar Dhawan cooling their heels presented an out-of-the-box scenario. In their absence, MS Dhoni became the stand-in captain by virtue of his seniority. Twitter went into a meltdown over his return to the helm, albeit temporarily, after 696 days. It was also his 200th match as captain, which the veteran described as “destiny”.
Midway into the game, Afghanistan’s Mohammad Shahzad threatened to overtake Dhoni in the trending charts. The portly opener was nearing his hundred, oozing entertainment. India made five changes and their whole front line bowling attack, save Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja, sat out. Deepak Chahar made his ODI debut, Khaleel Ahmed and Sidharth Kaul returned to the fold. On the batting front, KL Rahul and Manish Pandey were included. At the end of the day, though, it was India playing against minnows, Afghanistan’s rapid improvement notwithstanding. And Shahzad’s century had been an outstanding effort.
Shahzad actually is a throwback to the era when players used to play for fun. Three months back in Bangalore, as Afghanistan were preparing for their first ever Test, Shahzad even stopped his net session to greet the hacks waiting outside the fence. “Namaste, aap ka swagat hai (you are welcome),” he had said with a smile.
Shahzad almost forces you to take a fancy to his batting. He still stays below the 17.3 mark, which the Afghanistan team management has made the minimum requirement in yo-yo tests. His running between the wickets at times brings out laughter from the fans, but Shahzad remains unperturbed. When he gets going, he makes cricket exciting.
Shahzad is not a star like Rashid Khan. Despite having a strike rate of close to 88 in ODIs, and north of 134 in T20 Internationals, he was never considered for the IPL. Ahead of the India-Afghanistan match on Tuesday, he suddenly occupied column inches for receiving an alleged approach with regard to the upcoming Afghan Premier League. He was prompt in reporting the incident to the team management and the matter has been subsequently raised with the ICC Anti-Corruption Unit.
As the 30-year-old ‘keeper-batsman was galloping towards his fifth ODI hundred – first against a major Test-playing nation – the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s director (cricket) Basheer Stanikzai was clarifying the details of the alleged corrupt approach to reporters outside the stadium gate.
Inside, Shahzad was putting on an exhibition of unfettered strokeplay. After playing three dot balls against Chahar, he walked down the pitch to lift an out-swinger over cover. Two balls later, he again charged down to the debutant, this time to whip an out-swinger past mid-on. He was seemingly playing a dangerous game. But that’s the man for you, someone who likes to live on the edge, batting-wise.
Chahar bowled a beamer, the ball slipping from his hand, and readily apologised. Shahzad offered a smile. Then, he plonked his front foot forward and sent a length ball over the deep mid-wicket boundary. After five overs, Afghanistan had raced to 35 for no loss. Shahzad was batting on 28, while his partner, Javed Ahmadi, had three off 11 balls.
Kaul came and after conceding back-to-back fours, induced a false shot from Shahzad. But Ambati Rayudu couldn’t hold onto a relatively simple catch. Shahzad was unfazed. He pulled Jadeja against the turn over the deep mid-wicket fence.
After a 65-run opening stand, Ahmadi left, as Dhoni stumped him off Jadeja. He had scored five off 30 deliveries. Shahzad had already reached his half-century and was batting on 56 off 47 balls.
Dhoni brought on Kedar Jadhav and Shahzad cleared his front leg and hit a six over the straight boundary. Wickets started to tumble at the other end. Jadeja cleaned up Rahmat Shah before Yadav removed Hashmatullah Shahidi and Asghar Afghan off successive balls in his second over. But Shahzad marched along. After taking a four and a six off Jadeja, he slogged a Khaleel Ahmed delivery for a six over deep square leg. It took the opener into the 90s, ushering in a bit of nerves.
He took seven balls to move from 96 to 99. But Chahar returned, missed his line and Shahzad got a four down the leg-side. His celebration was humble; restricted to raising his bat and thanksgiving. Then came the shot of the innings – a flick of the wrists and a six off Chahar over deep backward square. Jadhav eventually got him out with a very low-arm delivery, as Shahzad sliced his shot to Dinesh Karthik at long-off. He departed for a 116-ball 124, with 11 fours and seven sixes. Shahzad left to a standing ovation. Thanks to his efforts, Afghanistan crossed 250.