Unflashy Mahmood proves his value
There was something symbolic about Azhar Mahmood slog-sweeping Shahid Afridi onto the grass embankment at SuperSport Park in Centurion. The shot brought up Mahmood's half-century, ensured Auckland would seal a big win over Hampshire and secure a spot in the main draw of the Champions League. It also made a small statement about Mahmood's prowess when compared to that of his countryman.
Afridi is thought of as one of the top Twenty20 allrounders. He can smoke the ball a long way, demolish stumps and has the attitude to match the boom-boom. In contrast, Mahmood has spent a long time being under-rated, but he is massively efficient. He was Kent's player of the season in 2011, and ended IPL 2012 with 186 runs at an average of 23.25 and 14 wickets at 23.50 for Kings XI Punjab.
On Wednesday, against Hampshire, Mahmood became only the sixth player to take five wickets and score a half-century in a Twenty20 match. Any MVP status he would have had must have increased exponentially in those few hours, with scouts from the world's Twenty20 leagues taking notes, but for Auckland it was a performance they always saw coming on a big stage.
"This is how Azhar has played for us in our domestic competition and we think he is a world class allrounder," Auckland captain Gareth Hopkins said. "He brings a confidence and a security for our batsmen and he understands how to go about setting and chasing a total. That experience with our younger batters is great."
Mahmood's ushering of Auckland through a fairly straightforward chase was the most notable difference between his performance and that of Afridi. Mahmood was beaten by the first ball he faced, and took seven more to settle in. Afridi tried to pull the first ball he faced, which was not short enough. And the second. And the third.
He was beaten on his fourth attempted pull as well, and was caught at mid-on. The bowler? Mahmood. He worked out Afridi's plan, kept bouncing him, and got his reward. Afridi has not been in top batting form recently. In six matches at the World Twenty20 he managed a top score of 14 against India, but his reputation as someone who dictates the course of a match by sheer willpower precedes any notion of form.
Afridi can come off without warning and today would have been an ideal occasion to do so. With Hampshire struggling with the bat, Afridi's urgency to get on with it was understandable. His method was not. Juxtapose his flashy attempts with Mahmood's level-headed grind and the differences between the two are highlighted.
Afridi is a show jumper, the kind that is not spurred by the sight of a bar placed too high but by the thought of it. He does not always respond to calls to action but he always thinks he will, and that is what makes Afridi so entertaining. When his thought process and his actions are in sync, there is no other cricketer in the world who is more arresting to watch.
Mahmood is the workhorse. Season after season, he has produced. Not of all it has been good produce. Just like in this innings, where he got lucky when he charged Liam Dawson and managed to get the ball just over midwicket, Mahmood has not always had it good. He fell out of favour with Pakistan and is not an automatic choice when discussing reliable, talented, go-to players.
As a measure of how forgotten his vast experience can be, consider that when Hopkins asked every member of his dressing room who had played at the Wanderers before, he also put the question to Mahmood. "Yes, I've been here before," he answered calmly. "I scored a Test hundred here." Mahmood's 136 against South Africa in February 1998 came a week before he brought up three figures in Durban as well.
Even the Hampshire Dimimtri Mascarenhas, whose fury with the pitch could not be masked, had a kind word for Mahmood. "It was a great performance and he is a class cricketer even though he is a bit slow in the field these days," Mascarenhas joked. "And he is also a genuine bloke."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent