@ovshake42 5 minute read
Pakistan walked away from the much-hyped Asia Cup clash against India with a defeat – and a debutant teenager that stood up to the challenge.
A year ago, Shaheen Shah Afridi had jolted India with two wickets with his first seven balls at the T20 World Cup. India stuttered their way to 151-7, a total the Pakistan openers mowed down with 13 balls to spare. The match ended India’s unbroken winning run against Pakistan – a curious fan-constructed streak that spanned two formats but ignored the Champions Trophy.
Afridi had picked up 3-31 that night in Dubai. He was key to Pakistan’s chances at the Asia Cup, particularly in their clash against the same opposition at the same venue. It also meant that for only the second time in history did Pakistan take field in a T20 International against India without a single left-arm pace bowler (after the 2012 T20 World Cup match).
Last night, Pakistan had become the first team to lose all 10 wickets to Indian fast bowlers in a T20I. Their bowlers were left to defend 148, fewer than what India had here last year. It was too low a target to contain; they needed wickets. And their strike bowlers were pacers.
There was temptation to go with Haris Rauf, the most experienced of the lot. There was Shahnawaz Dahani, who became a household name after two terrific seasons with Multan Sultans. Instead, Babar Azam threw the ball to Naseem Shah, all of nineteen, with 44 Twenty20 wickets in his career.
Naseem hails from a village in North-West Frontier Province. He was 16 when he played his first Test match, in Brisbane – on the day after his mother passed away back home. In his third match, he became the second-youngest in the history of Test cricket to take a five-wicket haul. In his fourth, he became the youngest ever to complete a hat-trick.
All that now feels ages ago as COVID-19 brought his – and everyone’s – life to a standstill. Since the lockdown, Naseem has 20 wickets from nine Tests at 42.45 – a significant drop from his 13 wickets in four matches at 26.84.
But Pakistan backed Naseem. He was, after all, only 19, younger than the age at which most cricketers debut. This summer, he toured the Netherlands for his first limited-overs stint for the national side. The Dutch are not the most formidable opposition, but 10 wickets at a mere 11.10 apiece are outstanding by any standards.
This, however, was different. Over the years, the hysteria around India-Pakistan matches have reached absurd levels. The absence of bilateral cricket between the sides has added to that. It was not easy for a teenager to replace Afridi, the hero from last year’s clash, and bowl the first over while defending a low target against a formidable line-up in front of a packed house.
Rohit Sharma, the man with most runs in T20I history, took guard. Of late, Rohit has changed his approach in the Powerplay, swapping the long innings for early bursts of high-risk shots. Here, however, he pushed the first ball towards leg and switched ends.
KL Rahul, playing his first T20I of the year, was next. Until 2020, Rahul’s T20I strike rate of 145 used to be the best among Indians with a 1,000-run cut-off. Since then, it has dropped to 131. With younger cricketers breathing down his neck, the onus was on him to score big.
A year ago, the left-handed Afridi had bowled Rahul off the thigh. This time, Naseem’s first ball did not move significantly, but it still took the inside edge of the bat and hit the stumps.
Half – a logical estimate – the crowd erupted in cheer. The other half joined in soon, for Virat Kohli had arrived after a reasonably long hiatus.
Kohli has not been in form for some time in this format, but this was also his territory. India needed a mere 147 in 118 balls – in other words, the kind of chase Kohli used to pull off in his sleep at one time.
It was different this time. Kohli left the first ball he faced, but was sucked into a shot to a ball outside off immediately afterwards. The ball took the edge – but Fakhar Zaman grassed the catch at slip. Two balls later, Naseem beat Rohit’s edge – but Mohammad Rizwan’s pleas from behind the stumps went unanswered.
Naseem’s next over went for five. Babar Azam took him off after 2-0-8-1. On another night, it could have been two, even three wickets.
He returned when Pakistan needed to defend 59 in six overs. On strike was Suryakumar Yadav, the second-ranked batter in the format in the world. Suryakumar played the first ball with caution before going after the second. Alas, Naseem was too quick, and the off-stump took a hit.
By the time he was ready to bowl his final spell, Pakistan had incurred the penalty of bowling slower than they needed to. They were allowed only four fielders outside the 30-yard circle. To prevent the inevitable onslaught – India needed 32 in three overs – Naseem bowled a bouncer outside off.
Too wide, was the verdict. As the left-handed Ravindra Jadeja moved away outside leg to face the second ball, Naseem bowled fast, well outside off – a tactic that would have been logically sound, had there been a deep cover. Unfortunately, both mid-off and cover had been inside the circle, and Jadeja bisected them.
Neither party decided to change tactic. Jadeja backed himself to move outside leg. Naseem backed himself to bowl fast. After two swings and misses, Naseem claimed Jadeja – only for the television cameras to overturn that decision: the ball had pitched outside leg.
But that was not all that had happened that ball. Naseem had gone down with cramps, joining several of his teammates, all of whom had been victims of the oppressive Dubai weather.
He had to recover, for Pakistan had exactly five men who could bowl – and there was hardly anyone who would complete his over. In an anticlimactic mismatch, Jadeja slammed the next ball over Naseem’s head for six.
But Naseem was not done yet. He decided to stick to the outside-off line, the staple of most fast bowlers. And somehow, despite that cramped leg, he mustered enough force to beat Jadeja for pace. Anticlimactic, perhaps – but India needed 21 in 13 balls, and a dot ball was a mini-victory for an injured debutant against a set batter with a reputation for hitting against pace.
Naseem walked off with 4-0-27-2, winning many a tiny duel in a four-hour high-octane clash that his team lost. Despite the result, Pakistan have reasons to be optimistic.