"Dwayne Smith batting like he trying to save West Indies Test cricket."
This tweet was posted during the West Indies batsman's hard-fought battle to make runs as Islamabad United moved to 36 for 0 after the Powerplay overs. Smith had managed 5 runs from 20 deliveries. After ten overs, he was 14 off 29 deliveries.
Luckily for Islamabad, at the other end Sharjeel Khan was batting on a different plane. By the halfway mark the left-handed Sharjeel had muscled his way to 58 with 11 boundaries, including three sixes. He had reached his fifty with a superb scoop off the second ball of Shahid Afridi's over; Darren Sammy at short fine leg could just stare in awe at the batsman's enterprise. Next ball Sharjeel hit another lusty six over cow corner and even Afridi had to admire the aggressive strokeplay.
In the previous over Sharjeel had plundered 16 runs off the emerging Peshwar left-arm spinner Mohammad Asghar to offset the defensive template set by Smith. As Sharjeel revealed later, he had walked into the ground, buoyed by a heavy dose of motivation from Islamabad coach Dean Jones. The former Australian batsman, full of bustling energy still, told Sharjeel that if he could stay strong today and perform, the match would be one-sided.
Afridi decided to bowl on a pitch that had already seen the best encounter of the PSL when Quetta Gladiators defeated Qalanders on the last ball in a high-scoring affair. Sharjeel's only other innings of significance, and impact, in the tournament came against Lahore Qalandars where he had matched Australian allrounder Shane Watson shot for shot as the pair finished the match with more than four overs to spare. On Sunday, no batsman except Sharjeel found the pitch easy to handle.
Familiarity with the surface and the conditions were a bonus for Sharjeel, who has played club cricket for years in the UAE. A batsman of stocky build, Sharjeel married his wristwork with power to stun Afridi and his bowlers. No bowler was spared. Having bludgeoned the spinners, Sharjeel set his eyes on the pace bowlers.
When Wahab Riaz came on to bowl for the first time in the 11th over, Sharjeel moved forward and unleashed a slash after the fast bowler pitched short on the off stump. On Darren Sammy's first ball in the 12th, Sharjeel charged the West Indies T20 captain and slapped a stinging four past the empty cover region. Two balls later, when Sammy bowled short, Sharjeel moved inside the line of the ball, raised his right leg and flicked an easy six over deep square leg. Some thought it was Lara-esque. Some Jayasuriya-esque. It was plain Sharjeel. Afridi, who was at mid-off did not move one bit. He stood helpless.
Smith's laborious innings came to an end when he was trapped plumb in front of leg stump by a yorker-length toe crusher from Shaun Tait. Next ball, Tait bowled fellow Australian Brad Haddin and came close to a hat-trick when Khalid Latif gloved a leg-side delivery only for Kamran Akmal to put down a chance. Unperturbed, Sharjeel steered an off-stump yorker for a four and then played an upper cut off an intended bouncer for a six. He was seven short of the three-figure mark. A straight, lofted, effortless six against Afridi brought up the PSL's maiden century. Sharjeel took off his helmet and excitedly leapt about in an ungainly fashion to celebrate the feat.
Sharjeel's power-hitting pedigree is well-known in Pakistan cricket. This was his second T20 century, his maiden ton in the format came in 2012 for Hyderabad Hawks against Lahore Eagles. He holds the record for the fastest fifty by a Pakistan opener, against Sri Lanka in December 2013, off just 24 balls. His 117 on Sunday was six runs short of the highest T20 score by a Pakistani: Mukhtar Ahmed's 123 for Rawalpindi, scored last year.
How dearly the PSL wanted this kind of innings coming from a promising Pakistan player. One reason the IPL has flourished is that it has allowed India's domestic-cricket players to showcase their talent and taught them how to deal with various match situations. It has provided them with the exposure and means to set higher goals and, in some cases, go on to achieve them. As Mohammad Akram, the former Pakistan fast bowler who is now Peshawar's coach, said it was an "exceptional" innings played by Sharjeel and one could only doff his hat in appreciation.
In the middle of the tournament Afridi, speaking on the benefits of PSL, said that he had been still waiting for some Pakistani batting talent to put their name forward. "I was hoping to see some new batting talent emerge from this tournament," Afridi had said.
Today, Sharjeel answered that question well. Afridi was left biting his lip.