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Rashid Khan, but so can Asif Ali, as Afghanistan's best efforts fall short

Spinner's captivating spell goes unrewarded as fusillade of sixes seal pulsating contest

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Two hours and forty-five minutes after sitting down to eat, the main course arrives. Rashid Khan stands at the top of his mark, spinning the ball from his right hand into his left. Egged on by the PA announcer, the crowd chant his name: "Rashid! Rashid!" In an hour's time he will stand disconsolate on the outfield, in a state of disbelief after Asif Ali smokes four sixes in an over. But in the here and now, his spell is the game.
Pakistan are one wicket down when Rashid comes on and have scored 72 of the 148 runs they need. This is their template with the bat: one of Mohammad Rizwan or, in this case, Babar Azam bats through, and the middle order have freedom to go hard if the rate gets out of control. Rashid has been held back to apply the squeeze, but even the best T20 bowler in the world has his work cut out in this situation.
Fakhar Zaman, Pakistan's No. 3, is 28 not out off 20 balls when Rashid starts his spell. An opener for most of his career, Fakhar has been transformed into a spin-hitter by Pakistan this year and has shown his ability in the role by carting Mohammad Nabi for four then six. He faced Rashid in the nets during the PSL this season, and has a short leg-side boundary to target.
At the other end is Babar, Bobby Dazzler, Pakistan's golden boy riding the crest of a World Cup wave. He is 35 off 30 balls, exactly where he was in the 10-wicket win against India, and is primed to slip into fourth gear. He exchanged words with Rashid during the two teams' tense game at Headingley in 2019 and has been dismissed both times he has faced him in T20. But tonight there is no real scoring pressure, and it won't be long before the dew takes over.
Between them, Fakhar and Babar are in control of one of Rashid's first six balls. Fakhar inside-edges to square leg. Babar steers a single through point thanks to a misfield. Fakhar is beaten by a googly which turns like an offbreak on a fifth-day Nagpur pitch, then gets two leading edges into the covers. Babar is trapped on the pad by a googly, only for Joel Wilson's on-field decision to be overturned. Rashid smiles wryly after realising his trademark aeroplane celebration was premature.
Rashid continues his spell with 67 needed off 48 and a new batter, Mohammad Hafeez, at the non-striker's end. Nabi has earned countless wickets in the last six years thanks to pressure built by Rashid and Fakhar is the latest, trapped lbw slog-sweeping. Hafeez knocks two singles but Babar just can't pick which way the ball is turning: he scampers a leg bye after a googly hits the pad, miscues a hack to deep midwicket to earn himself a single and a quiet word from Rashid, edges four past Nabi at slip, and, after a glare from Rashid, miscues a booming drive back to him via the inside edge.
The 15th over starts with 51 needed off 36 and by this point it is clear what Pakistan need to do: play Rashid out, and back themselves to score 40-odd runs off the four overs shared between Karim Janat and Naveen-ul-Haq, two young medium-pacers with a short side to defend and a greasy ball. Hafeez does not get this memo. He reads the googly, gets low to sweep, and is foxed by the extra bounce from Rashid's pace. Gulbadin Naib settles under the top edge and Rashid has a wicket - his 100th in 53 T20Is, the fastest to the landmark by so far he is showboating with 20 metres left to run. But Shoaib Malik and Babar trade singles, and Pakistan have nearly seen him off.
The equation ahead of Rashid's final over, the 17th, is 38 off 24. Shane Watson, the man who played Rashid better than anyone, has given away the secret to playing him barely an hour earlier on commentary: "You don't want to have to take a risk until he bowls his last over," he explained. "Then, if he hasn't got a wicket, he starts to try to take one and your scoring options are more available." Rashid has one already, but knows he needs another. He goes searching.
His first ball is a flat, fast legbreak, which Malik defends to midwicket; his second is a touch fuller, and disappears over wide long-on. Malik charges his third, picking up two to short midwicket thanks to his lack of timing, and gets out the way of a googly down the leg side which brings two free runs, escaping Mohammad Shahzad's grasp.
Babar fancies a piece and lines up a heave to leg, only for his outside edge to fly to Naveen at point, who dives forward and spills an easy chance. Rashid throws his hands up in frustration, and when Naveen misfields again to allow Malik a single off his penultimate ball, he sprays some choice words in the fielder's direction.
Rashid has one last ball to make count, with 26 needed off 19, and inevitably fires in a full, flat googly. But for once, Babar is caught up in the emotion of the night, the tension of the chase, the fervour of the atmosphere. He aims a hoick over midwicket but is beaten by pace and turn simultaneously, swivelling round to see his leg stump knocked back.
Rashid has had a brutal few months, struggling to hide his despair around the humanitarian crisis back home and playing on through the turbulence of the Taliban's takeover. He is asked political questions in three different languages in his pre-match press conference, insisting his only focus is this World Cup while 1,000 miles away, his country is in turmoil. In this moment of hope and celebration he lets out his pent-up emotion, wheeling away with wild, bulging eyes and jumping in the air with a roar.
Rashid's four overs have gone for 26 runs and leave the same number required off three overs. Somehow, thanks to this remarkable genius, Afghanistan are alive. They have hope. They are still fighting.
But Rashid has learned over the course of 286 T20s that this is a cruel game, where one mistake, one moment, one misjudgment can cost you. As Babar trudges off, Asif walks in. Twelve balls, three missed yorkers and four sixes later, Rashid's spell is a footnote - a captivating, pulsating footnote - on a night that belongs to Asif.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98