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Feature

When Ifti-mania swept Multan

He came in to bat earlier than he's ever done in ODIs, and he turned this challenge and opportunity into a heartwarming maiden hundred

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
31-Aug-2023
Iftikhar Ahmed shouldn't have been in any position to score an ODI hundred. The jury was - still is, probably - out on his place in Pakistan's starting XI, and the Asia Cup opener against Nepal was just his 15th ODI. Even if he's the least cynical person in the world, Iftikhar, who turns 33 this Sunday, may well believe that a search to replace him furtively is always going on in the background.
He especially shouldn't have been in the position he bats in, given the players who come in before him. Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam have been the most reliable top three in the world in this World Cup cycle; roughly two-thirds of Pakistan's ODI runs have come from their bats. No other top three has contributed more than 55% of their team's runs since the last ODI World Cup ended.
Only once before in his ODI career has Iftikhar faced more than 41 balls, and coming in as he does during the death overs, frustrations about his inability to translate his fearsome T20 power hitting into ODI cricket have lingered.
Pakistan's top order was expected to grind Nepal's bowlers into the boiling Multan afternoon dust, but a pair of run-outs and some soft dismissals saw Iftikhar come in during the 28th over - the earliest he has come in to bat since his debut in 2015. And therein he saw a chance he knew he'd rarely have.
"The way our top order bats, they usually take matches very deep. It's been a long time since I came in to bat so early," Iftikhar said after the game. "Usually, I come in around the 40th or 45th over. But as a professional, you have to be ready for any situation and work on your skills. I know now that I won't get a chance to construct too many innings. I focus on hard hitting since that's what I'll be required to do most."
But training to go deep in his crease, get the front leg out of the way and blast away to long-on is not always the skillset required in the middle overs of an innings that needs reconstructing. With Babar at the other end and worries about fragility lower down, Pakistan needed to navigate their way from 124 to 4 to a stage where Iftikhar's big-hitting skills would come in handy later on. That meant he needed to do one of the things that has challenged him in this format: hang around.
It's something that doesn't pose any problems for Babar, and Iftikhar found that helped him. With Nepal taking the pace off the ball and the surface not quite as conducive to stroke-making, he needed all the help he could get.
"Babar is a world class player, and when he rotates the strike as effectively as he does, he takes all the pressure off you. We were just chatting normally to each other during our partnership and enjoying ourselves," Iftikhar said.
"Early on, the ball was gripping into the surface. In Pakistan, whatever the weather, the ball grips in the first innings, and the bowlers were bowling slow, which gave them even more grip. When I came in, I found the wicket very difficult to adjust to at first. But as I played on, the ball began to find the middle of the bat."
Iftikhar said that in his signature self-effacing manner, not quite doing justice to the onslaught he unleashed upon Nepal. Until the 39th over, he'd managed to get to 36 at just a bit better than a run a ball. But with the innings approaching the phase he actually trains for and finding himself set, Iftikhar found the platform he always craved. He plundered 73 runs from the final 37 balls he faced, manipulating the field one moment with clever placement, and taking it out of the equation altogether with monstrous hitting the next.
He brought his hundred up in the penultimate over, in which he ran Karan KC ragged. Iftikhar's brute force was on display for the first four and six that took him to 97, before a delicate carve to short third brought up the hundred that age, batting position and sheer circumstance had until then conspired to deprive him of.
"As a professional, every player dreams of a hundred. Scoring hundreds at number six is difficult, and that made me really happy. In international cricket, it's never easy to score a hundred against any team. Nepal weren't given this spot, they qualified for it. They've beaten a lot of teams to get here. They're a very good team, but we're in very good form at the moment."
Once more, the stress was on the collective rather than the individual, but Multan wouldn't be stopped from directing singular love towards this superstar. Chants of "Ifti Chacha" (uncle), an unusual sobriquet for a 32-year-old, began to sound throughout the stadium towards the end of the innings. This, remember, was at a time when Babar, a man whose veneration crosses partisan city divides in Pakistan, was at the other end, batting on 150. A local journalist would later tell Iftikhar he had been happier to see him score a hundred than Babar score one.
Iftikhar bashfully smiled, and the chatter eventually moved on to the game against India on Saturday. Cricket might move on soon enough from this contest, but on a day where the heat and humidity were enough to drive anyone slightly mad, it was Ifti-mania Multan went crazy for.

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000