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Afghanistan look to spring a surprise against Shadab-led Pakistan

Not too much rides on this T20I series in an ODI World Cup year, but expect plenty of intrigue nonetheless

Rvel Zahid
Fareed Ahmad and Asif Ali had to be separated as tempers flared in the middle, Afghanistan vs Pakistan, Asia Cup Super 4s, Sharjah, September 7, 2022

Tempers flared during the most recent meeting between Afghanistan and Pakistan, at last year's Asia Cup  •  Associated Press

High-octane matches between Pakistan and Afghanistan in showpiece events are nothing new, but this first-of-its-kind bilateral series offers the tantalising promise of normal cricketing ties in the future. The shared love of the game on both sides of the border acts as a binding force and a hedge against volatile political relations between Kabul and Islamabad.
Afghanistan were originally slated to kickstart their season with an ODI series against Australia this month in the UAE but Cricket Australia shelved its plans to play in protest at the curbs placed on women's cricket in Afghanistan, paving the way for this series.
Not much is riding on this T20I series for both teams, given this is an ODI World Cup year. Both teams are well-accustomed to the conditions given the fact that the UAE is Afghanistan's home venue and was Pakistan's home away from home for a decade. Pakistan's record against its northwest neighbour is unblemished but they will be without several key players, who have been rested, potentially balancing the scales. Afghanistan could back themselves to get the better of a Shadab Khan-led side in the three T20Is.
Afghanistan will be buoyed by their recent 2-1 T20I series win over UAE and, before that, a pretty decent outing in the 2022 Asia Cup, where they outgunned eventual champions Sri Lanka in the group stage and went on to overwhelm Bangladesh to make it to the Super Four round. They came within touching distance of victory in a low-scoring humdinger against Pakistan, too, until two Naseem Shah sixes denied them at the death.
With a young batting line-up, Pakistan's vulnerability to collapse can't be ruled out because they will be up against a potent bowling attack. The 22-year-old Fazalhaq Farooqi has gone from strength to strength since his stint in IPL 2022 - where he worked under the tutelage of Dale Steyn - after which he went on to make a mark in the inaugural edition of the ILT20. His ability to bowl with control up front keeps opening batters on their toes.
A well-rounded Afghanistan batting line-up has a wealth of international experience, which could put pressure on a young Pakistan pace attack. It won't be easy to cover for Shaheen Afridi, who was phenomenal in the just-concluded PSL, but the likes of Naseem, Ihsanullah and Zaman Khan, have the skill set to pose significant challenges for Afghanistan batters. Ihsanullah, who hails from Matta, Swat, claimed his maiden five-for against Quetta Gladiators and ended the PSL season as its second-leading wicket-taker with 22 scalps.
A notable addition to Pakistan's squad is Imad Wasim; he ended PSL 8 as the tournament's best allrounder, scoring over 400 runs and snapping up nine wickets. Having fallen way down the pecking order, he now links up with Mohammad Nawaz as they vie for that spin-bowling allrounder spot.
Afghanistan have mainly relied on their spinners to weave magic but now they have match-winners in their pace battery, too. Afghanistan have an opportunity to enhance their reputation among Full Members, and for that they'll need to hold their nerve at crucial junctures. This being a bilateral series will help them play in an uninhibited manner given there is not a lot at stake.
Pakistan have included Saim Ayub whose performances made everyone sit up and take notice during the PSL. His audacious shots were a treat to watch, notably a no-look scoop over fine leg that had social media swooning. Saim, alongside the belligerent Mohammad Haris, entertained the crowd royally in the PSL, and these purveyors of modern-day cricket almost seem genetically wired to thrive in limited-overs cricket. Shadab spoke glowingly of the new talents that the PSL has unearthed, and wants them to have a proper chance at the international level.
Afghanistan, meanwhile, have recalled Mohammad Nabi after he was dropped for the UAE series. The old hand has seen it all since the early days of Afghanistan cricket and has been the fulcrum of their batting line-up. His canny offspin will come in handy in what should be spin-friendly conditions. He will be eager to locate his mojo after a poor run of form of late, only managing 45 runs and seven wickets in his last 10 matches. Nabi relinquished the T20I captaincy last year following the T20 World Cup in Australia.
Uncapped opening batter Sediqullah Atal made his T20 debut for Kabul Eagles in the 2020 Shpageeza Cricket League and was part of Afghanistan's squad for the 2020 Under-19 World Cup. He will now get to test himself against a strong international attack.
Swashbuckling opener Hazratullah Zazai didn't get the selectors' nod, while Nijat Masood and Zahid Khan have been added to the reserves. Ibrahim Zadran and Karim Janat have been in sublime touch of late and both thumped half-centuries to script Afghanistan's outstanding six-wicket win over UAE in the T20I series in February. A series win could be a major tipping point in the progress of Afghanistan cricket.
The bowlers struggled in the sweltering heat during last year's Asia Cup, with Naseem cramping during the high-voltage clash against India, but the weather will be milder at this time of the year, which will certainly help the fast bowlers bowl at full tilt.
Emotions can flare up during Afghanistan-Pakistan contests, particularly during closely-fought matches. There was unrest in the stands during the 2019 World Cup and during last year's Asia Cup in Sharjah. This time around, the organisers have decided to keep the two sets of fans in separate stands and have put on-site security and stewards on alert to prevent any crowd trouble. But cricket will take centrestage, and that should be enough of a draw on its own.