Slap! Reverse sweep for six! Simply … wow. Saeed Ajmal’s bemused look says it all – who is Mohammad Shahzad?
I’ve made it to my Nepali friend’s little Afghan house in the heart of Kabul just in time. Shahzad has played one of the greatest cricket shots I’ve ever seen; authoritative, brash, powerful. The reverse sweep easily clears the fence and Afghanistan are flying at 1-53 in the 9th over. What a cracking entrance onto cricket’s world stage! This is better nation-building than NATO.
It’s my newly adopted country’s first foray against a test cricketing nation, with a one-off 50-over match against Pakistan in Sharjah, Dubai.Pakistan, fresh off a 3-0 win against England, are unbackable favourites. But after winning the toss and electing to bat, Afghanistan have come to play.
I jump on the internet. Turns out that Shahzad, who could be mistaken for the son of a kebab-maker, is the burly wicketkeeper-batsmen from Gardez, not far from the Pakistani border. He leads Afghanistan’s first-class run tally at the ripe old age of 20. Watching him strut up to the crease is enthralling – he has more presence than Santa Claus.
Shahid Afridi comes into the attack. Shahzad looks to dispatch a wide delivery over point. Asad Shafiq, right on the edge of the circle, leaps at full stretch to reel in a terrific catch. That ball was travelling. Shahzad’s dazzling innings comes to a premature end. 20 off 17 balls. But I’ve seen enough; Shahzad is definitely my man.
And the carnival continues, as the jubilant Afghan crowd cheer every run. Karim Sadiq, the dashing opener from Jalalabad, looks a million dollars. But his class at the crease is surpassed by the guile of Afridi, taking four wickets in an exceptional spell. His googly is near unplayable. Yet the Afghans keep the scoreboard ticking over. Where did this maturity come from? 5-101 after 22 overs.
The Afghan online community is buzzing full of pride on Twitter (#AfgvsPak). My heart is racing, and my Nepali friend is a little bemused. I realise I haven’t been this excited about a cricket match in years.
Former Afghan captain Mohammad Nabi settles the innings opposite a cheeky Samiullah Shenwari. Nabi plays a couple of sublime drives over mid-on for six and the crowd (and Twitter) go nuts. His footwork is spot-on, but it is his composure which impresses most.
Shenwari, clearly inspired by Shahzad’s swashbuckling knock, belts a perfectly timed reverse sweep for four. 5/145 after 34. 200 is possible … inshallah.
My driver arrives. I quickly relocate from the homely confines of Sherpur to a poppy palace in Qala Fatullah, where I am greeted by a small party who call Kabul home … at least for now. A banker from Pashawa, a businessman from Karachi and a Kabuli entrepreneur crack open the black market vodka, and the banter jumps off Twitter and into the lounge room. “Did you hear they’re playing for the Terrorist Cup?”
Nabi has sadly run himself out while I’m in transit, but once again, his replacement looks more than capable. And Shenwari is playing sensible cricket, seeing off the good deliveries and dispatching the bad. It takes a dodgy LBW decision to break the partnership, and the tail is exposed. But Shenwari is having none of it – another daring reserve sweep, which bounces just inside the rope. Dawlat Shadran, with 8 first-class runs to his name, goes one better with a clean hit over cow corner.
200 is doable, but at 8-193 in the 44th it’s line ball. “This match could explode at any minute.”
Shenwari is dismissed LBW trying to paddle it past the short fine leg, and I applaud another eye-catching Afghan innings. But it signals the end, with the last wicket knocked over quickly. Afghanistan are all out for 195, just shy of the 200 we had hoped. But my Pakistani revellers quickly agree, Pakistan are great at fucking things up. It’s anyone’s game.
The Pakistani innings commences after the break. Mangal has set an aggressive field, and after a couple of looseners, the opening pacemen look dangerous. A tight contest ensues. Then Dawlat gets his man, and Pakistan are 1-9. I’m on the edge of my seat. “They should have Afghan cheerleaders in burqas.”
Asad Shafiq and an out of form Imran Farhat look nervous. But a couple of expensive overs releases the pressure. Then Dawlat strikes again, trapping Shafiq plump in front. 2-42.
Necessary bowling changes are made, and the spinners have a trundle. It’s pedestrian, part-time stuff. The peanut gallery have an interesting theory – spin bowlers might be seen as sissies in Afghanistan; it’s gonna be all about pace. Afghan pride could prove their Achilles heal.
Younis Khan, the former Pakistani captain, looks like he’s just tidying up the office at the end of the week. Farhat is played into form by some gentle offies. We hold a team meeting in the lounge room – the field is too defensive, they gotta take wickets. The captain listens, calling a power play after the drinks break. Strike bowlers are recalled.
But the batsmen are settled and the initiative is lost. The captain drops a catch he should’ve taken, and a sharp run-out chance is missed. Finally, Farhat is taken caught and bowled off Shenwari’s part-time leg breaks, but it is brief respite. Khan and the skipper, Misbah ul-Haq, pick off the cherries and we watch the match slip away as quickly as the vodka. Pakistan by 7 wickets.
But as we head off into the Kabul nightlife, we toast world cricket’s newest contenders. It is a performance to remember.
And I’ll never forget that shot by my man …