As someone who has been following the Associate cricket scene fairly closely since the 1999 World Cup, I have always wanted to watch the likes of Scotland, Ireland and Afghanistan play live. Once it was decided that Zimbabwe v Afghanistan would be a direct knockout, last-minute arrangements were made to make the 800-odd km train trip from Mumbai.
While Samiullah Shenwari and Mohammad Nabi played vital roles in the Afghanistan win, Mohammad Shahzad's early blitz set the pace for the game. Though sparse, the Afghanistan fans were out in vociferous support, chanting "Shahzad, Shahzad", as he sent one ball after another for boundaries across the wagon wheel.
The ticketing. Fans were forced to go to the old VCA stadium in Civil Lines, a good 20 km from the actual venue. The comic relief, in all this, was on a notice board announcing ticket collections. It seems ticket collection was to be at the Jamtha stadium, and a last-minute shift meant a plain, white paper was plastered over the word 'Jamtha'. Simple, brutal and convenient.
Samiullah Shenwari bowling to Malcolm Waller and Richard Mutumbami. Shenwari seems every bit the hard-working cricketer, not willing to give an inch to the opposition while batting, bowling or fielding. While he was hard on himself for dishing out balls down leg, he produced a few perfect deliveries any legspinner would have been proud of - flight, dip and sharp turn to beat the bat. One of these was to Waller in his second over, and when he came back for his third over, he hit the off stump with an almost identical delivery. First the feint, then the knockout punch.
Right before the Zimbabwe innings began, wicketkeeper Shahzad and Noor Ali Zadran, who was fielding at first slip, had a lengthy argument about where the third man fielder should stand. In the end, they both decided that one of them should go to the crease to decide this once and for all. Shahzad, clearly the less athletic and orthodox of the two, sent Noor Ali to the crease. With Sibanda waiting to take strike, Noor Ali shadow-batted a cut to third man, and asked Gulbadin Naib to move to his left. As he walked back, the two had a hearty laugh. Not quite the autopilot settings that the likes of India and South Africa have, yet thoroughly enjoyable.
Among the players and officials at the venue, Inzamam-ul-Haq got the loudest cheers when Afghanistan were warming up. A section of Indian fans somehow elicited a wave from the shy Inzibhai. A grinning Makhaya Ntini on the big screen came a close second.
Despite its brevity, it's impossible to pick out one shot from Shahzad's innings. An entire over from Tendai Chatara had one improbable shot after another - a front-foot pull to a short ball, then a blistering square cut, followed by a cheeky hook over short fine leg. You could play these in your head over and over again, and still run out of adjectives to describe them.
Earlier in the day, I ran into a number of Afghanistan fans, decked in their traditional khet partugs, waiting for their tickets at the old VCA stadium. A majority of them were students, who had made the 700 km trip from Pune, while some others had come from as far as Kandahar and Herat. "Insha'allah jeet jayenge aaj," (By the grace of Allah, we shall win today) was the common sentiment. These fans were a tireless cheering squad that picked out three of their biggest stars - first "Shahzad, Shahzad", followed by "Nabi, Nabi" and "Hassan, Hassan", as the players took Zimbabwe apart.
The running between the wickets from the Zimbabwe and Hong Kong batsmen provided the most entertainment. Samiullah Shenwari, ever the livewire, took a shy at the stumps casually towards the end of the Zimbabwe innings. Donald Tiripano's bat was inside the crease, but not grounded. It was yet another comic run-out from Zimbabwe, in what has been a dreadful series for them.
Afghanistan were clinical, and it always felt like they were on fourth gear, from start to finish. Their fans from far and wide made it an atmosphere worth savoring. Associate sides get the wrong end of the stick far too often, and it was a joy to see them get past Zimbabwe. Likewise, a few Scottish fans by the South stand were there to witness their side's first-ever triumph at this level. The perfect evening for them, despite the rain trying its best to deny them a deserving, account-opening victory.
7. I almost missed the match due to the ticketing system. With no separate queue for this game, we had to stand in the same, long queue as that for India games. An understanding VCA official saved our day, just in time, to ensure we had the tickets before the game started.
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