Pakistan 258 for 7 (Imam 80, Babar 66, Malik 51*, Rashid 3-46) beat Afghanistan 257 for 6 (Shahidi 97*, Afghan 67, Nawaz 3-57) by three wickets
Dasgupta: Pakistan's plans against Rashid and Mujeeb worked
Deep Dasgupta says targeting Afghanistan's weaker bowlers was the key to Pakistan's narrow win
It was three balls from the end that the match finally appeared to have swung decisively. In an ideal world, Afghanistan wouldn't have wanted their weakest bowler on the day - Aftab Alam - bowling the final over. But here he was, and under extreme pressure, experience counted. Shoaib Malik is experience personified, and he capitalised as the bowler lost his composure and sent down two poor deliveries with 10 needed off five balls. A six and a four, game over, and a three-wicket win for Pakistan. Eight hours and a bit of Afghanistan playing out of their skins, and yet no points to show for it.
The best game of this tournament - one of the best ODIs all year - it refused to get off the knife's edge. A magnificent unbeaten 97 from Hashmatullah Shahidi and an entertaining half-century from Asghar Afghan powered Afghanistan to their highest total of the tournament - 257 - overcoming a wobbly start where they lost both openers early.
Pakistan began in the worst possible way, losing Fakhar Zaman in the first over, but a monumental 154-run partnership between Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq appeared to have put them on course. It wasn't nearly as simple as that though, with Afghanistan continuously pegging Pakistan back. They fell just short in the end, and the tears flowed.
Pakistan weren't at their best today in any department. The fielding was shocking, the bowling too wayward, the no-balls untimely, and rash shots emanated from scrambled minds galore. It was, invariably, Malik who navigated his way through the madness of a team that seemed to have forgotten all of its progress of the past couple of years, bringing up his half-century with the winning hit while the other batsmen chose the most critical junctures to give away their wickets needlessly. Imam was run out, perhaps too confident of pinching another single against a lackadaisical Afghanistan in the field, and Haris Sohail perhaps played the worst shot of the day, skying a long hop to mid-off just when Pakistan looked to have a stranglehold on the game.
At every stage of the innings, Afghanistan's two spinners, whose combined age makes them only one year older than Malik, loomed large. Pakistan seemed to constantly be calculating how many overs Mujeeb ur Rahman and Rashid Khan had left, choosing to attack the quicker bowlers. You could see why; five of the six wickets Afghanistan's bowlers took went to the pair, and they increasingly pulled back situations whenever it looked like Pakistan would get to their target at a canter. In the modern age, seven an over shouldn't be complicated at the back end of an innings, but the presence of Afghanistan's spinners meant the win never seemed assured till their quota was done.
In a somewhat scrappy contest, the best passage of sustained quality was provided by Imam and Babar, two young players on whom a significant part of Pakistan cricket's future depends. Imam played Rashid and Mujeeb better than any of the Pakistan batsmen, regularly picking Rashid's googly, while Babar had the maturity to take his time at the start, before picking up the run rate once he got his eye in.
It was just as well for Afghanistan a brilliant piece of fielding got rid of Imam - the bowlers looked to be out of ideas as the partnership began to mount. After that, the chase was somewhat frenzied - Haris played a poor shot while an out of form Sarfraz Khan fell trying to square cut a full toss headed for middle stump. But timely blows kept the run rate from spiralling out of control - Asif Ali, Mohammad Nawaz and Hasan Ali each hit one huge six, dragging Pakistan back into the contest just as the game seemed to be slipping away.
Pakistan had made three changes for this match, switching up both personnel and combination as the folly of taking six seamers to a country where wickets are slow and swing is elusive began to sink in. To compound their woes, Shadab Khan was adjudged unfit, and it was clear Haris's inclusion in place of Faheem Ashraf had far more to do with the former's ability to bowl slow left-arm.
But perhaps the most notable change, arguably long overdue, was replacing Mohammad Amir to give Shaheen Afridi his first ODI cap. He was much better than his figures suggested, utilising changes of pace and exploiting his height to extract pace and bounce. But he was the prime victim of Pakistan's largesse in the field, seeing no fewer than three catches dropped off his bowling, making him wait for a maiden ODI wicket. However, he was among the culprits too, dropping an absolute dolly as Pakistan began to fall apart at the end of the innings.
Two partnerships kept Afghanistan steady in the middle of the innings with Shahidi first teaming up with Rahmat Shah and later with his captain Afghan, to steer a rocky ship from 31 for 2 to 180 for 3. As Pakistan lost their discipline, Shahid kept his, taking advantage of a life he was given after Hasan bowled him off a no-ball to plunder 13 runs in the final over. He ultimately ended three runs short of a hundred.
There will be better days for this remarkable Afghan team. And they will feel all the sweeter for heartbreaks like this one. Just don't tell them that today; it won't be any consolation right now.