Afghanistan v Ireland, World T20 Qualifier final, Dubai March 24, 2012

Shahzad steps up again on the big stage

The next step in Afghanistan's journey is closing the gap between them and the second-tier Full Members. With players like Mohammad Shahzad forging an identity that commands attention, that day may come soon

Some call him pugnacious, others just pudgy. For the opposition he's definitely a pain in the backside. But for the thousands waving their black-red-and-green flags inside the Dubai International Cricket Stadium on Saturday night, Mohammad Shahzad is the pride of Afghanistan.

Hamid Hassan may be the most glamorous of the Afghanistan players, but in his absence the grittiness of Shahzad stands out. Two years ago in the final of the same tournament, Shahzad scored an unbeaten 65, hitting the winning runs in Afghanistan's eight-wicket victory over Ireland. Ten days later against Canada in the Intercontinental Cup, he scored an unbeaten 214 as Afghanistan chased 494 to record a sensational six-wicket win. While playing for the ICC Combined Associate and Affiliate XI this January, Shahzad held his own against England XI with a pair of half-centuries interspersed with a healthy sprinkling of chat with England's fielders.

His 77 against Ireland today may have been in vain, but it's an innings that will have caught the attention of India and given a reminder to England about the kind of player Shahzad is. Both countries will be tasked with avoiding an upset at the hands of Afghanistan in September at the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. The Associates might be seen as little brothers in the eyes of the Full Member nations, but Afghanistan showed against Pakistan last month that they won't be pushed around lightly and Shahzad embodied that fighting spirit once again against Ireland.

Shahzad came in at No. 3 after the loss of Karim Sadiq in the third over and hit a boundary off his pads to get off the mark. He followed that up with six dot balls but on the final ball of the fourth over bowled by Trent Johnston, Shahzad flicked for two. Halfway through completing the first run, Shahzad collided with Johnston and in between overs he demonstrated his displeasure by gesturing at Johnston and the umpires.

He may have still been a bit sore from bouncing off the tree trunk that is Johnston, but it wasn't long before he decided that Ireland's bowlers should get their own dose of pain. Shahzad used the incident to fire himself up and in the next over pulled Max Sorensen over midwicket for six before slashing the next ball over short third man for four.

Over the course of the next hour, Shahzad demonstrated a wide array of shots on his way to becoming Afghanistan's leading scorer in the tournament with 352 runs. For a brief time he was No. 1 overall before Paul Stirling usurped the top spot with a sublime knock of his own in the second innings. In a format which sometimes encourages players to be crass with their shot selection, Shahzad showed he has plenty of class with some elegant late cuts. Shortly after passing 50, he backed away to loft left-arm spinner George Dockrell over extra cover for a six and four off consecutive deliveries.

When he was finally dismissed with eight balls to go in the Afghanistan innings, Johnston gave Shahzad a pat behind the head. He may be combative, but he also has the respect of his Associate-level opponents. Pretty soon, that respect will come from the Full Members too.

In May 2008, Afghanistan was in Division Five of the World Cricket League. By the spring of 2009, Afghanistan had moved up to Division One, falling just short of qualifying for the 2011 World Cup. A year later, they were in the Caribbean at the World Twenty20 going up against India and South Africa. They might have been overmatched in those games, but Afghanistan have continued to progress at warp speed in the two years since. In September, they'll have another shot to show the Full Members what they've been learning, and perhaps teach them a thing or two as well.

The past 12 days showed the gulf that exists between the cream of the Associate and Affiliate crop, Ireland and Afghanistan, and the 14 other teams that participated in the qualifier in the UAE. The next step in Ireland and Afghanistan's journey is closing the gap between them and the second-tier Full Members. With players like Shahzad forging an identity that commands attention, that day may come sooner rather than later.

Edited by Abhishek Purohit

Peter Della Penna is a journalist based in New Jersey