A brave knock…….
For well over a few years now, any mention of Afghanistan cricket naturally revolved around the growth of the sport in a war-torn country. By refusing to buckle down even as the threat of the Taliban was dangerously close, the bunch of players who had assembled together to play the game for their country remained hard to ignore. They proved an inspiration; a messiah for people who refuse to follow their hearts and instead easily gave up on their dreams.
However, the dangers with such emotional tales are that a side can easily take cover in their passionate spirit and in their off-field persona whilst refusing to perform as per expectations on the field. They remain sides who constantly win hearts but a lack of character and the zeal to push further keeps evading them. However, after a few spirited performances in quick succession, Afghanistan have ensured that they no longer are the team that are applauded for their heroics to just play the sport. They have not ceased to win hearts though; they instead have ensured that they win matches along with it as well.
Earlier deemed as the team of Rashid Khan, Afghanistan cricket – though still heavily relying on the youngster – have assembled together a group of cricketers who have grown professional and more consistent as the months have rolled on. Names like Mohammad Nabi, Asghar Afghan (previously Asghar Stanikzai), Mohammad Shahzad and Gulbadin Naib no longer ignite ignorance and coupled with a few fearless upcoming stars like Ihsanullah Janat, Rahmat Shah and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, the squad has all the undertakings to be serious competitors.
Leading the middle-order is Hashmatullah Shahidi who often acts as the bridge between the top-order and the middle-order for his team. The top-order for Afghanistan have managed to score at an average of 34.16 this year – figures that are definitely poor by the international standards. However, with an average of 70.67 in 6 games in 2018 while batting in the middle-order, Shahidi has ensured that the failure at the top hardly impacts the team’s progression. By holding one end up, he not only ensures the quick singles but also enables the fierce lower-order to unleash their full wrath.
Four times this year the cricketer has walked out to the crease with the team score under 80 – thrice, the score on board had not even crossed 30. However, instead of panicking in crisis situations, Shahidi has managed to control his nerves to score three fifties this year when the Afghan side was tottering and desperately needed a helping hand. Against Ireland in tough conditions at Belfast, it was his serene 82-ball 54 to go with Naib’s 64, which helped the side leap from 78 for 3 to 155 for 4. Against Bangladesh in the ongoing Asia Cup, he held the innings together after the team had collapsed to 28 for 2, scoring a fine 58 in 92 deliveries.
It laid the foundation for the exploits of Naib and Rashid later on in the innings.
A similar situation panned out in the first game of the Super Fours, where Afghanistan was meeting Pakistan. High on confidence after defeating Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the side was eager to complete a hat-trick of wins but yet another failure from the openers threatened to derail their journey. Walking out to the crease at 31 for 2, Shahidi was a man on a mission; eager to replicate his presence as a match-saver for his side. It was a reputation that had taken tremendous work to achieve, along with hours and hours of undying patience and dedication towards the sport.
Playing relatively a controlled and calm innings till then, it was Pakistan’s Hasan Ali who got the beast to awaken within the 23-year-old. As a fuller length delivery was driven back to the bowler in the 33rd over of the Afghan innings, Ali, in a visible attempt to subvert the batsman’s attention mocked a throw towards the rival. A stare from Shahidi and yet another mock throw that led to a few words being exchanged only symbolized the fact that the Pakistanis were aware of the importance of the player at the crease. It remained one of the biggest confidence boosters for Shahidi, who upon realizing how the opposition viewed him, started his rampage.
A cheeky shot for a four against the same bowler was the perfect answer and by consistently scooping and carving out even the good length balls to the boundary, the player displayed his finesse and his technical skills. The full-tosses were powerfully smashed away and the shorter ones were ferociously pulled towards the mid-wicket. A hattrick of fours in the 50th over brought him closer to his maiden hundred and it was here that the crowd, irrespective of the team they were supporting, united to witness what would have been a magical moment indeed.
Shahidi on 97. The last ball of the innings. As the excitement reached a crescendo, a delivery that cramped up the batsman for room was unfurled by Usman Khan. As the player tried to navigate through the ball in vain, the “oooohs” around the stadium were palpable; the disappointment writ large on the faces of the spectators. He had missed out on a well-deserving ton, however, as Shahid walked back a hero, the images of Afghanistan striving in war-like conditions had long escaped attention.
They are now worthy competitors, mighty fighters and dangerous rivals, equipped with some of the most talented players in their arsenal.