Najibullah Zadran, the pressure-handler in Afghanistan's line-up of power-hitters
He is often overlooked because of the buzz around the T20 superstars, but the middle-order batter has quietly been moving up the ranks
Najibullah Zadran has been moving up the big-hitters' list for a while now, and took his game to the next level on Tuesday against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, hitting six sixes - the last finishing the match - in a seven-wicket win. That made it two wins in two for Afghanistan, and another of their number has emerged as a power-packed performer in an already impressive catalogue of match-winners.
Despite his 140-plus strike rate in T20s, Najibullah usually goes about his business quietly in ODIs. Najibullah has become something of a regular in T20 franchise leagues around the world, recently even signing up with MI Emirates in the UAE's ILT20. This, though, came at a crucial moment in a major tournament. As with any Najibullah innings, however, it was all calculated. He was in control while hitting each of his sixes, even the one where he ended up spinning a full 360 degrees. He packs a lot of power, after all, despite his not-too-powerful appearance.
When he struck Mahedi Hasan for the first six of the Afghanistan innings, in the 16th over, it was perfectly timed. Bangladesh had established something of a chokehold with a lot of dot balls, and the scoreboard read 79 for 3. So Afghanistan needed one big hit, or at least a show of intent. Najibullah provided it.
Mustafizur Rahman was next in his radar, as Najibullah swung him over square-leg, before pasting him down the ground. Both in the 17th over. That second was a simple reaction to what Mustafizur was trying to get away with, a dot ball. The finish line in the chase of 128 suddenly looked around the corner, with 26 needed from 18.
But Najibullah was in a hurry. The two sixes off Mohammad Saifuddin in the 18th over were pleasing too. Against a short ball, he swung his body around completely, playing a sort of waft over his head. The ball-by-ball commentary on ESPNcricinfo described it as a "pull/hook/scoop/ramp". It went soaring over deep square-leg. It will certainly make it to the end-of-tournament montages and packages, or social media memes.
One more went over long-off, and then the last one, straight down the ground.
"We understood it wasn't going to be an easy total," Afghanistan captain Mohammad Nabi said after the game. "We wanted to keep wickets in hand as we have the ability to hit the ball really hard. It is what Najib Zadran did. In the middle, Ibrahim Zadran [42 in 41 balls] rotated the strike, hit the (odd) four.
"We are known to defend totals, not chase totals. This time, we chased quite well. We weren't under pressure. Our team looks properly balanced"Mohammad Nabi
"We put Ibrahim on top so that he can bat till the death overs. He would be in one side, and we (would) attack from the other side. We need this type of batsman to rotate the strike easily. He wasn't under pressure all the time. He can also hit the ball quite well."
Najibullah has had a decent year so far, hitting three fifties in ODIs and two in T20Is. But he is somewhat low profile, often lost in the clamour around Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Rashid Khan, or even Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
Nabi said that Afghanistan have been trying to break a few notions about the team's batting in the Asia Cup, especially their ability (or lack of it) while chasing totals. Najibullah, obviously, plays a big role there.
"As a unit, as a team, we showed in the Asia Cup that Afghanistan has quality batsmen, bowlers and fielders," Nabi said after back-to-back - and comfortable - wins while chasing. "We are known to defend totals, not chase totals. This time, we chased quite well. We weren't under pressure. Our team looks properly balanced. I hope we do well in the next round against big teams [likely to be India and Pakistan, unless Hong Kong spring a surprise].
He said that Afghanistan's experience in playing a lot of their cricket in the UAE recently has come in handy, but they were also lucky that Bangladesh chose to bat first on Tuesday.
"We have played a lot in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi in the last 15 years. We know the conditions better," Nabi said. "We didn't think we could score 200 in Sharjah. Sometimes a low total is tough to chase. It was better not to throw early wickets, it made us easier to target the bowlers, and finish the game with two overs [nine balls] left.
"The pitch is new. They changed the soil. Nobody has played on this pitch. That's why it was better to bowl first, to see the reaction of the pitch. The opposition team was under pressure as we took early wickets."
Afghanistan now have a few days to rest before hitting their stride in the second round, the Super 4s. The opposition might be tougher, but they seem to be relishing their new status, of not being a novelty in multi-team competitions, and being taken seriously, even feared.
Expectations will go up, understandably, but with their line-up of T20 superstars, and the under-the-radar Najibullah doing his thing, they will be backing themselves to win more often than not.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84