Just over 24 hours before the first ball was bowled in this series, Ireland captain William Porterfield told the gathered media in Sharjah that Rashid Khan had been the key to their previous series but that he's just one of several spinners in Afghanistan's arsenal, and it would be unwise to focus only on him.
Aside from the Rashid threat, Ireland were well acquainted with the wiles of Mohammad Nabi, someone who had been decorating his mantle with a number of Man-of-the-Match awards against them. But little could have prepared Porterfield for the introduction they got from 16-year old offspinner Mujeeb Zadran.
By the time Rashid had tossed the ball for the first time, Ireland were reduced to 30 for 5 in pursuit of 239 after Mujeeb's unorthodox bowling action left them completely befuddled. A few hours later, Ireland had subsided for their fifth-lowest ODI total, completing yet another rout by Afghanistan in a year where they have also recorded wins over Ireland by 10 wickets in a T20I and by an innings margin in the Intercontinental Cup. An opponent that was once Afghanistan's equal is now on the verge of becoming their bunny.
Taking the new ball, it was only the mercifulness of Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai that helped spare Ireland the ignominy of the teenager bagging a five-for in his opening spell on debut. After taking the new ball, Mujeeb had figures of 7-2-12-4 when Stanikzai took him out of the attack.
Mujeeb's strangling of Ireland began in his second over, when he trapped Paul Stirling on the crease. His following over saw Andy Balbirnie castled prodding forward. Seeing the folly of a conservative approach, Gary Wilson tried to sweep Mujeeb but went too far across the crease and was bowled behind his legs. Kevin O'Brien decided to go out in a blaze of glory, but his slog only produced a stiff breeze and a fourth wicket for Mujeeb. Brought back on later, for three intermittent overs, his spell finished with a series of inside edges teasingly missing the stumps, as he narrowly missed an elusive five-for on debut.
On another night, it would have been another Zadran who grabbed deserved headlines for a sharp bowling spell. Mujeeb benefitted from the discipline of fast bowler Dawlat Zadran, who opened with three maidens at the other end. An inside-edged four by Niall O'Brien broke the string of dots at the start of his fourth over, but by the end of it Niall had been foxed into chipping a leading edge to midwicket.
Dawlat came off the field straight after the wicket, having seemingly tweaked his shoulder during the celebrations. But he returned later to bounce out George Dockrell, caught brilliantly at square leg by wicketkeeper Shafiqullah. Rashid and Nabi eventually got to share in the spoils as well.
It was a far cry from the confidence Ireland had displayed in the field, having sent Afghanistan in to bat and restricting them to 238 for 9. Boyd Rankin, who had been injured for Ireland's last tour against Afghanistan in Greater Noida, showed his value to the attack with 4 for 44.
Brought on near the end of the Powerplay, after Porterfield had opted to open with spinner George Dockrell at one end opposite usual new-ball seamer Tim Murtagh, Rankin chipped away at Afghanistan. After Murtagh made the initial breakthrough, Rankin's height and bounce produced a flat-footed swish from Ihsanullah to make it 22 for 2 in the eighth over.
A rigid 105-run stand between Rahmat Shah (50) and Nasir Jamal (53) followed as both batsmen took on allrounder Simi Singh in the 25th over, bashing him out of the attack with a six apiece. It took the return of Murtagh to break the stand, teasing Jamal into driving to long-on. Rankin then had Rahmat feathering a rising delivery through to O'Brien and four balls later the tall fast bowler from Bready teamed with Dockrell to run Nabi out for a duck. He then ended his next over getting Stanikzai to chop on.
With Afghanistan at 132 for 6 and with Rankin in a good rhythm, it looked like Irish eyes might be smiling on Sharjah. But first Gulbadin Naib and Rashid, and then later Shafiqullah wrested momentum back for Afghanistan. Rashid coolly scored a 49-ball 48 to relax the pressure initially before Shafiqullah clubbed three sixes in the 47th, 48th and 49th to deflate Ireland heading into the innings break.
However, it was Mujeeb who popped Ireland's balloon altogether. A year that started with one teenage spinning phenom setting the world alight for Afghanistan is now set to end with another riding shotgun.