Afghanistan allrounder Mohammad Nabi
has been a thorn in the side of Ireland in each nation's battle for Associate supremacy. On a few occasions, Nabi's Irish needling has been down to his loose adherence to the gentlemanly code expected of cricketers on the field. Far more often though, he has kept Irish eyes from smiling due to his knack of turning in match-winning performances.
On Wednesday, he provided a moment in relation to the former, claiming a catch that was in fact a drop and, as was communicated during the television commentary, earned him a hearing in front of the match referee. On Thursday, it was the latter that put him center stage as he shredded Ireland's batting order with 6 for 40 after the follow-on was enforced. His effort stamped an authoritative seal on an innings victory for Afghanistan inside three days to move them one point past Ireland, and into the lead on the Intercontinental Cup table with two rounds to go.
Nabi entered the match needing three wickets to become Afghanistan's all-time leader in the I-Cup
. He ended the second day needing one to tie and two to move past Hamid Hassan. It took him about an hour into day three before he finally drew level by nabbing Andy McBrine on a missed sweep for the eighth Ireland wicket in their first innings.
An obdurate innings by John Anderson
delayed Nabi's attempt at moving past Hamid, not to mention the scheduled lunch break. Anderson received decent support from Tim Murtagh and even better resolve from Peter Chase as Ireland's tail wagged for just short of 41 overs in the opening session of play. Murtagh fell leg-before to a googly from left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan in the 72nd over but Chase stubbornly resisted for almost 20 more overs before chasing a wide ball, from part-time legspinner Rahmat Shah, that he could easily have left alone. He made a late stab that caught the edge to end the Ireland innings for 261.
Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai
showed faith in not just the skill but the stamina of his bowlers, who had already toiled for 91.4 overs in the 40-degree heat of Greater Noida since the second session on day two, by enforcing the follow-on rather than coming out for a brief batting burst. They rewarded that faith by rolling over Ireland in less than half the time of the first innings.
After a luckless spell prior to lunch when he had achieved considerable reverse swing with the old ball, Dawlat Zadran
took just two overs to strike with the new one. Two balls after inducing a false drive from William Porterfield that split second slip and gully, he had Porterfield send another edge to Rahmat at gully. Rashid Khan
then followed up his first innings five-for by kissing Andy Balbirnie's outside edge with a legbreak through to Afsar Zazai, back behind the stumps for the start of the second innings after being relieved of his duties by Mohammad Shahzad on day two.
The early wickets paved the way for Nabi to continue his pursuit of the Afghanistan I-Cup bowling record, and how. Batting at No.6, Anderson had played a gritty knock in the first innings to stonewall Afghanistan's bowlers for more than three hours while finishing unbeaten on 61 off 175 balls. He was promoted to No. 4 in the second innings as Ireland hoped to capitalise on an eye locked in for the long fight they needed to save the match. Instead, Nabi sent Anderson packing for a duck, beating a defensive waft for his third lbw of the match.
Three balls later, Nabi sent Ireland's other candidate for a marathon rearguard packing. Ed Joyce was beaten on a flat-footed effort by a ball that straightened to knock back the off stump to make it 38 for 4 in the 20th over. Seeing that Ireland's defensive strategy was failing, Niall O'Brien went into attack mode and swept Rashid for two fours and a six over midwicket, but his fourth attempt resulted in a top edge taken by Zazai, who ran from behind the stumps to square leg.
Paul Stirling became Nabi's third scalp in the innings - out for 1 - to cap a nightmarish match for Ireland's most belligerent batsman. Injured in the field on day one, Stirling was held back until No. 8 on day two with his left index finger in a splint, and managed to last just four balls. On day three, Stirling lasted an over before a half-tracker from Nabi was calamitously pulled straight to Rahmat at midwicket.
Gary Wilson offered multiple chances in his charmed 30-ball stay before Rashid won an lbw appeal after he defended down the wrong line to a legbreak pitching on leg stump and straightening. It left Ireland at 69 for 7, level with their worst total in the I-Cup, made against Namibia in 2008.
Nabi read Ireland their last rites, reeling off three wickets in his last four overs. McBrine drove a catch to Dawlat at mid-off, Murtagh's misguided charge resulted in a Zazai stumping and a Dockrell edge to Shahzad at slip gave Nabi his second-best innings haul and best match haul in first-class cricket - 8 for 85 in 40.1 overs.
Afghanistan's last two matches in the I-Cup are in Hong Kong and then a last-round desert showdown with UAE. Wet conditions have wreaked havoc on games in Hong Kong in the recent past. With a trio of innings victories on the trot over Namibia, Netherlands and now Ireland, a rain-affected draw may be the only way to deny Afghanistan from storming to their second I-Cup title and a date with Zimbabwe in the 2018 Test Challenge.