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Feature

Iftikhar Ahmed, a man primed to beat New Zealand at their own game

Like the Blackcaps, he gets the most out of his abilities. He is Pakistan's most aggressive batter and their most economical spinner at the World Cup

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
03-Nov-2023
Iftikhar Ahmed can give it a good whack  •  ICC/Getty

Iftikhar Ahmed can give it a good whack  •  ICC/Getty

Iftikhar Ahmed sat at the head of a table in a conference room at the Ritz Carlton Bangalore. There was a press interaction with Pakistan's journalists, though the gathering was smaller than might have been expected, even in India, where visa complications have meant just a smattering of the Pakistan press contingent has made the trip. A pair of journalists ended up at the wrong hotel and missed the whole thing. As such, four reporters sat huddled around Iftikhar with recorders and microphones. This, after all, wasn't about glamour, it was all about functionality.
He spoke about the value of striking up partnerships through the middle overs, talked up the good spirits in the camp and the momentum they felt was being built up. He declined an opportunity to complain about his batting position, or the fields set when he bowled. The answers were almost rhythmically gentle and dull, having the same effect as the mechanical offspin he has deployed so often this World Cup. Unlikely to cause a stir or to penetrate, but the idea it would backfire and put him or his side on the defensive was equally improbable.
Perhaps fittingly, the only one he hit out of the park came at the death, when as much off the field as on it, he felt he had less to lose. "When we lose, people talk about us eating biryani, but when we win, not so much," was what he signed off with.
Pakistan haven't really had the kind of World Cup to start talking about unsung heroes, but unsung Iftikhar most certainly is. Fakhar Zaman was lauded for his strength of character in returning after being dropped following a sharp dip in form, Shaheen Afridi praised for rediscovering his own mojo. Iftikhar has been used more like a spare tire, plugging the gaps in a pinch but never actually venerated like those other shinier toys.
It's still little surprise that Iftikhar's value remains underappreciated. He has 139 runs in seven innings, with no score in excess of 40. He has taken two wickets - those of Colin Ackermann and Litton Das - in 33 overs this tournament. Even bit-part cricketers might shy away from being lumped in with him.
It doesn't help that Pakistan have used him as a stopgap so often Iftikhar has almost become their personification of papering over cracks. Legspinners unable to stem the tide in the middle overs? Stick Iftikhar in for a few. Thinking about taking pace off with the new ball? What's Ifti chacha for, after all? Need to finish off a game quickly to help with the run rate? Need some power at the death with a longish tail? Let's see how Uncle Ifti goes, shall we? Need the odd death over? He can do that, too.
But scrape past those initial superficial statistics and his value becomes clearer. No Pakistan batter has a higher strike rate than Iftikhar at this tournament, and none come close to his six-hitting prowess and frequency. He has hit one every 14.75 balls he faces, a feat bettered only by Glenn Maxwell, David Miller, Heinrich Klaasen and Marco Jansen.
At the same time, while Pakistan have the third worst economy rate for the middle overs (11-40) at this World Cup, and their two frontline legspinners Usama Mir and Shadab Khan carry economy rates of 7.08 and 6.42 respectively, Iftikhar's performance during this vulnerable phase has invariably tempered the opposition's belligerence. In as many overs as Shadab has bowled, his economy rate has read 4.69, nearly a whole run superior to the next most economical Pakistan bowler Mohammad Nawaz's 5.58 (minimum 90 balls). Simply put, he is Pakistan's most aggressive batter, most economical spinner and he can bat and bowl at various stages of an innings.
His flexibility might prove even more valuable in Saturday's game against New Zealand, one where Pakistan have many variables to take into account, including the inclement weather and their need to keep an eye on their net run rate. And while it's New Zealand who have historically earned a reputation for knowing how precisely to get the most out of limited resources, Pakistan have, in Iftikhar, a man primed to beat them at their own game.
And he might just do it while the spotlight shines on Shaheen, Babar, or even the amount of biryani Pakistan may or may not have consumed.

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000