Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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Mike Hussey called it a "gamble" when he signed Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf for Welsh Fire in the Hundred draft. There was uncertainty around Pakistan's fixture list at the time but Afridi and Rauf will be available for six out of eight group games, and have taken eight wickets between them in the first three.
Afridi struck with his first two balls in Fire red, trapping Phil Salt and Laurie Evans lbw with two trademark inswinging yorkers, and was the leading wicket-taker in the first week of the men's Hundred. Rauf has been the fastest bowler in the competition, blasting out Southern Brave's middle order in a tight defeat on Friday night.
"Alhamdulillah, I have had good rhythm since we started in Cardiff," Rauf tells ESPNcricinfo. "I hope for the rest of the tournament, I can put in good performances." He says, laughing that he will try and crank up towards 150kph and beyond this week: "Inshallah! I'll try my best for the team."
They have thrived in combination. "Me and Haris enjoy bowling together, as a partnership," Afridi adds. "We have been playing together since 2018 and we try to give our best for every team we play for." Rauf says playing alongside his close friend helps him feel "very relaxed" and perform at his best.
They first played together for Lahore Qalandars, the whipping boys of the early years of the Pakistan Super League who won four consecutive wooden spoons, and their partnership has helped transform that franchise into two-time champions. After losing all eight games last year, Welsh Fire hope they will have a similar effect on their own fortunes.
"Lahore Qalandars lost a lot in the first four or five years," Afridi says, "but we have won back-to-back finals in the last two. That's why we're here, to perform well for this team - and so far, so good." Rauf adds: "We all believe in each other. In all leagues around the world, that's the most important thing: how can you make a good environment for the players?"
They have enjoyed being coached by Hussey, who replaced Gary Kirsten as coach over the winter and has started the season with a win, a narrow defeat and a tie at The Oval on Sunday. "Hussey is a very good man," Afridi says. "When he played for Australia, he was our favourite player. We enjoy working with him."
On Thursday, they will play against one of their Pakistan team-mates in Shadab Khan, who is finally playing in the Hundred for the first time after international commitments forced him to pull out of contracts in the first two seasons. Shadab made his Birmingham Phoenix debut on Monday night, and is relishing the chance to play against some familiar faces.
"When you play against your friends and perform against each other, you're teasing each other about it all year," Shadab says. "They're my close mates, so I want to beat them - because they beat me in the PSL." He explains that his plan when he faces them with the bat is simple: "Whack them for sixes, bro."
The ECB have made clear that the Hundred forms part of its strategy to engage with South Asian cricket fans based in the UK. "There are so many Asian communities in the UK," Shadab says, "and in Birmingham, so many Pakistani people live here.
"Three players from Pakistan are playing tomorrow [Thursday] so hopefully the fans will come with their flags," he adds. "When people from Pakistani communities come to support you, it's a great feeling."
But Pakistan players are well supported in England regardless of the competition. "I played for Notts [in the T20 Blast] as well," Afridi recalls, "and Hassan [Ali] was playing for Birmingham. They always come and support us. We are always happy whenever we see our people… hopefully we perform in front of them."
All three players will leave the UK next week for Pakistan's ODI series against Afghanistan in Sri Lanka, which forms part of their preparations for the Asia Cup, and the World Cup beyond. "Slowly, we are building up our workload," Afridi says. "It won't be easy in Sri Lanka - different weather as well - but hopefully in the Asia Cup and World Cup we will do very well."