Sharjah: Eleven years on from when these two sides first played each other, Afghanistan secured the win they have arguably wanted more than any other, sweeping Pakistan aside by six wickets in the first T20I in Sharjah.
In a clinical performance, where the hosts were the better side from start to finish, they sealed the win in style. The returning Mohammad Nabi was the hero with the bat, a walloped six over mid-off off Ihsanullah capping a brilliant performance with both bat and ball.
Pakistan had chosen to bat first after winning the toss, but Afghanistan immediately established their dominance, keeping the young Pakistan batting order on a leash. On a surface where batting was exceptionally challenging, Pakistan crumbled in the face of a disciplined Afghanistan bowling, frittering away wickets at regular intervals, struggling to transfer any pressure onto the hosts. No Pakistan batter managed to reach 20 as the innings limped along, the 92 for 9 that Pakistan ended with their fifth-lowest T20I total.
Afghanistan's chase made obvious the challenges of batting on this surface, and Pakistan's pace bowlers made hay with the ball. Ihsanullah was particularly exceptional on debut, taking two wickets in his first three balls as Afghanistan lost three quick wickets, and a resurgent Pakistan threatened to run through their line-up. But in a game where experience mattered more than flamboyance, Nabi came out to calm Afghan nerves, his unbeaten run-a-ball 38 and an assured partnership with Najibullah Zadran shutting the door in Pakistan's faces.
Afghanistan rein in Pakistan's top order
Pakistan's openers, Saim Ayub and Mohammad Haris, were flying high after a brilliant PSL campaign, but any thoughts of taking the attack to Afghanistan's bowlers were soon dispelled. On a surface unlike any they faced in the PSL, Haris and Ayub struggled to get bat on ball. Early prodigious swing from Fazalhaq Farooqi set the tone, and as the bowlers preyed on the young openers' frustrations, they were soon rewarded. Haris tried to hoick a short ball in front of square on the leg side, only to slash it in the air over point, with Azmatullah Omarzai running back and taking the catch over his shoulder.
In the following over, Omarzai trapped Abdullah Shafique lbw, and before the powerplay was over, Ayub fell, too. He was attempting a no-look lap over fine leg, his rendition of that shot was one of the moments of the PSL. On a surface where the ball didn't quite come onto the bat the same way, he only deflected it onto his stumps.
Spin takes over
After being reduced to 39 for 3, there was no respite for Pakistan's batters. Rashid Khan stepped up to the bowling crease as soon as the powerplay ended. It took him one ball to remove the one Pakistan batter who had demonstrated any sort of competence, utterly deceiving Tayyab Tahir in the flight, ending a breezy nine-ball 16. On a surface where the ball appeared to be stopping in the pitch, Azam Khan was similarly clueless, lobbing Mujeeb Ur Rahman to short midwicket for a two-ball duck.
There were only six balls of pace between the seventh and the 17th over, and in those 11 overs, Pakistan went from shaky to shell-shocked. Reduced to 80 for 8 by this time, there was to be no coming back.
Ihsanullah shouldn't have had the pressure of defending such a low total in his first international game, but he more than gave it a go. His first international ball grew big on Ibrahim Zadran, rushing the batter with an extra yard of pace, forcing him to splice one up into the air. It was more of the same two balls later as Gulbadin Naib perished in the same way, and a revived Pakistan suddenly smelled blood.
Naseem Shah struck to get rid of the biggest dangerman Rahmanullah Gurbaz the following over, thanks to a sensational grab at short midwicket from Shafique. The wheels had almost come off the Afghanistan innings when a miserly Imad Wasim cleaned up Karim Jannat with a dart into middle stump. At this point, it appeared Pakistan would subject Afghanistan to yet another heartache.
The Nabi-Najibullah partnership
It has been apparent for some time that Nabi's star has been on the wane, but having been recalled to the side, there was scarcely a better man for Afghanistan to have in the middle. A man whose career has straddled pretty much Afghanistan cricket's entire history, his wizened, grey experience was the perfect antidote to the nerves and paranoia that would have surrounded his side. Content to see off Imad, he took the emotions out of the contest as he whittled the target down with Najibullah. Aware the required rate was never going to be a problem, the dot balls didn't pile on the pressure, and the occasional boundary only increased Pakistan's desperation.
In that search for wickets, Shadab was forced to turn to Ihsanullah and Naseem a couple of overs early, and Nabi sensed his opportunity. Aware the wicket wasn't quite offering the fast bowlers as much anymore, he smacked Naseem for a pair of fours at the end of the 17th over to bring the target down into the single figures. It was only fitting that a majestic six over mid-off made the win official, a princely shot from a man feted as Afghan cricketing royalty.
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