Iftikhar Ahmed’s century against Nepal in the 2023 Asia Cup opener, his first in ODI cricket, came at just the right time for Pakistan. He demonstrated that he is more than just a slam-bang T20 power-hitter, writes Naman Agarwal.
Iftikhar Ahmed made his ODI debut nearly eight years ago, in 2015. Since then, he has played four Test matches, 15 ODIs, and 49 T20Is. It would be a fair assumption if these numbers make you believe that he has gone the T20 route, adapting his game just for the shortest format like countless other cricketers of this generation. The fact that he has been outstanding in T20Is adds to that narrative. However, it might not necessarily be true.
Since his return to the T20I side in 2019, Iftikhar has eased into the role of the power-hitter, having to go big, be it in the face of a collapse or after the famed Babar-Rizwan opening duo has set a platform. When he gets it right, there is no one quite like him in the Pakistan lineup. Yet, his T20I strike rate hovers around the early 130s, indicating there may be more to Iftikhar than brute slogging. And that is what his century against Nepal in the opening match of the 2023 Asia Cup – which by the way, did include brute slogging – encapsulates.
Batting first, Pakistan were in a precarious position at 124-4 from 27.5 overs when Iftikhar walked out to bat at No.6. It was the sort of score where he could neither afford to go all out right from the start, nor go into a shell. His final score of 107 not out off 71 balls might indicate that he did the former, but not quite.
His first ten balls fetched seven as he quietly settled into his innings with Nepal bowling spin from one end and seam from the other. At 16 off 19, he had not hit a single reckless shot. The first six came off the twentieth ball – a short ball dispatched duly over mid-wicket.
By the end of the 42nd over, Iftikhar was batting on 51 off 45 balls, and Pakistan were 228-4. Babar and Iftikhar had added 104 in 85 balls by then. He ensured they did not go into a shell in an attempt to rebuild while not taking any undue risks. The launching pad had been set. It was Ifti Mania territory now.
And Ifti Mania arrived. The next eight overs brought Pakistan 114 runs, 56 of which came off the bat of Iftikhar. Off 26 balls.
This might have been his first ODI hundred, or for that matter, his first international hundred, but this was not the first time he played a knock like this. In the fifth ODI against New Zealand in Karachi a few months back, he had pulled off one of his trademark rescue acts.
Coming in at 66-4 in a chase of 300, Iftikhar bid his time. He stitched a 97-run fifth-wicket partnership with Salman Agha at nearly a run a ball before unleashing himself as he started running out of partners. He finished unbeaten on a 72-ball 94 as Pakistan were bowled out for 252. If that was the first sign of Iftikhar’s versatility, the hundred against Nepal indicated that he can do it regularly.
At this point, Iftikhar’s numbers in ODIs in 2023 read 278 runs from five innings at 92.67, with a strike rate of 121. His hundred was just the seventh by a Pakistani No.6 in ODIs, the first since 2014, and the fastest among players not named Shahid Afridi.
The hundred might have come against Nepal, an Associate Nation playing their first ODI against Pakistan; the sample size of his numbers might be low; but the ceiling is evidently high.
Pakistan are in search of answers to their game of middle-order musical chair powered by a host of all-round options to choose from before the World Cup. Iftikhar’s knock today, should have given them some.
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