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November 3, 2009
Who needs the captaincy when you are in this kind of form? Shahid Afridi's supposed desire to lead Pakistan in ODIs and his rift with captain Younis Khan has dominated the chat in Pakistan since the Champions Trophy, and his all-round performance tonight to dismantle New Zealand - along with the captain's duck - will do nothing to quell further talk. But why burden yourself with leadership hassles when you can turn in the kind of man-mountain performance Afridi did, first resuscitating Pakistan from a disastrous start with the bat and then nearly taking a hat-trick as his side romped home to a 138-run win at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Afridi's day had begun halfway through Pakistan's innings, when having won the toss, they were making a mess of things. Shane Bond had bowled an opening five-over spell of refreshingly attacking intent, of real cunning, occasional pace and much guile. Each ball he bowled, it seemed, was geared only to take wickets, not save runs. With the rest of Bond's colleagues chipping in, Afridi turned up to find his side limping around at 75 for 4.
Much like a magician he turned it into an ominous 287 for 9 with his innings opening up the floodgates for his lower order, in particular Kamran Akmal, who plundered New Zealand relentlessly at the death. In all, 137 runs came in the last 15 overs and 206 off the last 25, and Afridi was the culprit.
It was a calm hand by his standards, pretty brutal by any other, and the kind of innings Twenty20 has brought out of him. In its entirety it was mature, particularly in the realisation that he need not go at it helter-skelter from the off and that if his forearms are somehow aligned to his brain then mountains can be moved.
Indeed there was nary a miscue or hoick to begin, just urgent nudges and grunted pushes to revive Pakistan's comatose run-rate. Once Khalid Latif, drafted in as opener, pulled a first boundary for nearly 12 overs in the 29th, he freed Afridi's mind. Soon Afridi was dancing out to hoist three sixes in two overs of spin from Daniel Vettori and Nathan McCullum.
The flurry of boundaries is an Afridi trait, but once out of the way he reverted - pleasingly - to taking well-placed singles and doubles, managing the occasional boundary. Shane Bond was muscled over long-off for one such, to bring up his fifty off 37 balls, which was still sedate for him. He went soon after biffing a couple more, but not before, with a tranquil Latif, having revived Pakistan. Latif looked as threatening as a butterfly, without being as pretty, but he stuck around for what was a valuable fifty. And he was at his most effective when Afridi was going for it, simply because he ensured that Afridi got much of the strike.
Akmal, relieved of opening and for Afridi's ballast, gleefully looted runs over the death, putting on 86 with Abdul Razzaq in just over seven overs - driving, scything and squeezing a parade of sixes and fours en route to a stunning 43-ball 67.
The momentum with them, Pakistan's pacemen worked their way through the top order, crippling the chase at the very off. Umar Gul may have been the main beneficiary in terms of wickets, but Mohammad Aamer's opening spell - much older than the 17-year-old body and mind that produced it - was the key. At whippy pace, he gnawed away at both Brendon McCullum and Aaron Redmond over after over, regularly beating them for pace and inward movement and ultimately setting the tone of who was to boss the chase.
Inevitably, though, Afridi had to have the final word. Daniel Vettori and Redmond had gamely kept New Zealand within a sniff, though Redmond's ponderous fifty - unlike Latif's earlier - did not have anyone going crazy enough around it. After an indifferent, hurried first spell, Afridi got the pesky Vettori to drag on an attempted sweep, and with his next ball trapped Nathan McCullum. Another umpire might have even given the hat-trick - incorrect as it may have been - but denying Afridi in this kind of mood took some standing. New Zealand found it beyond them.
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