Mohammad Shahzad’s eyes must have lit up when he saw India’s playing XI for the Asia Cup match against Afghanistan on Tuesday in Dubai. For starters, his idol MS Dhoni was captaining India again - deep down Shahzad must have been pleased that a dead rubber was suddenly going to take on added importance around the cricketing circles. But more importantly, he’d have seen a bowling attack that was there for the taking.
After all, expect Kuldeep Yadav, none of the Indian bowlers selected to play this game were originally part of the squad.
As he later admitted, Shahzad decided he was going to see ball, hit ball. The result? A thrill-a-minute ODI century in a match that ended in dramatic fashion — the first tied game in Asia Cup history.
Just as the excitement of seeing Dhoni lead India out was dying down, Shahzad took over with his extraordinary shot-making. With Deepak Chahar and Khaleel Ahmed — shared experience of one ODI between the two of them — were attacked from the word go as anything on good length or fuller, was treated with disdain. When the first wicket partnership came to an end on 65, Shahzad had scored 56 of those runs. When Afghanistan reached their 100 in the 19th over, having lost three more wickets, Shahzad had scored 86% of his team’s runs. When he reached his century, Afghanistan’s score was 131 — the joint-lowest team score in ODIs when a batsman scored his ton.
If you thought losing those quick wickets would slow Shahzad down, make him play within his capabilities — as he had done in this tournament previously, showing a willingness to curb his natural enthusiasm for the big shot — that didn’t happen. The only occasions Shahzad slowed down on Tuesday was when it was time to catch his breath in that oppressive heat or when Kuldeep was bowling.
One shot stood out more than most in that innings that was filled with eye-catching hits. Having reached his century and visibly tiring, Shahzad picked up a full ball on his pads from Chahar and, just with the flick of his wrists, with his feet hardly moving, hit the seventh six of his innings. Batting a few yards in front of the man who he has idolised for years now, Shahzad played a shot that was a reminder of Dhoni’s heyday. When he eventually walked off after making a 116-ball 124, he received a richly-deserved standing ovation.
A gutsy bowling effort
Having set India a target of 253, Afghanistan’s defence did not get off to the best of starts. KL Rahul and Ambati Rayudu played like two men who were out to impress their team management at all costs, while Rashid Khan was missing from the field after limping off at the end of Afghanistan’s innings with what looked like a hamstring injury.
He did eventually walk out to the field and slowly, but surely, his side gained foothold in the match. Once both the openers were back in the pavilion, with Rahul taking India’s review with him in a move that proved to be decisive, Afghanistan sensed an opening. The spinners (five of them used in all) started drying up the runs. Asghar Afghan, perhaps sensing already that the match was going deep, held back his best spinners.
The part-timer Javed Ahmadi dismissed Dhoni, who looked like he knew he was not out but couldn’t review, and walked away, shaking his head. The same fate befell Dinesh Karthik later, as he too was given out LBW when the tracker showed the ball was missing the leg stump by a fair distance. In between, Manish Pandey threw away an opportunity while Kedar Jadhav was run out at the non-striker’s end from a Karthik straight drive.
This was Afghanistan doing what they do best. This was them not giving up on the match, even when the odds were stacked against them. They persisted, they had their share of good fortune and ultimately, they set the match up for another thrilling finale — a third last over finish in three Super Four matches. Ultimately, it came down to Rashid Khan vs Ravindra Jadeja in the final over with one Indian wicket remaining. And another controversial umpiring call, a near run-out and a bizarre shot from Jadeja later, the match ended in a tie as Afghanistan celebrated with all their heart — just as they play their cricket.
Thank you, Afghanistan
Interestingly enough, Dhoni’s career as India’s captain that officially began with a tie against an Asian rival in September 2007 (his first match as captain was technically against Scotland but that was a complete washout), quite possibly came to a close with a tie against another Asian rival in September 2018. As is likely, if Dhoni doesn’t captain India anymore, he chose one heck of a match to be the stopping point of a storied era, much like that unforgettable match against Pakistan in the World T20 being an absorbing curtain-raiser.
But the story on Tuesday, despite early indications to the contrary, was not Dhoni. The story was Afghanistan’s continued rise as a cricketing nation, repeatedly showing that they can compete with the best. For the uninitiated, this Asia Cup was proof that Afghanistan don’t just deserve a pat in the back for plucky performances as underdogs. They deserve their spot as one of the top ten cricketing nations in the world.
And much like how Afghanistan lit up what has largely been a dull tournament for the most part, so to speak, Mohammad Shahzad, Rashid Khan and Co lit up a dead rubber.
Despite (or perhaps, because?) being a game without any consequence for the tournament, the match on Tuesday evening turned out be the best of the tournament so far and for that, Afghanistan deserve plenty of credit.
They could have been forgiven for not coming up with their A game after heartbreaking defeats in the desert heat in the past few days, knowing they were already out of the tournament. But that’s not what this Afghanistan team are made of. This is a team that is grateful for every opportunity they get to play cricket and that is be the biggest takeaway from a match that we should remember for a long time.