Unfettered Shahzad leads Afghanistan's compelling charge

Belief and audacity in the face of daunting challenges define Afghanistan's players - especially a particular opening batsman - and their fans, and it is a stirring sight

March 19, England team hotel, Mumbai: "We've watched him for a while now, but last night was about as in control as he has ever looked. He didn't look to over-hit the ball, he didn't look out of stride and the ball still travelled a long way."
March 20, Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai: "I play my own game because I am waiting for the loose delivery. When I find a loose delivery, whether it is the first ball or last ball of the match, a four-day game, Test match, I don't care. I just play my own game, like MS Dhoni, you know."
Two chases against South Africa, a mere 48 hours apart. Two opening batsmen in chases against South Africa, separated by time and space, chalk and cheese, war and peace, aesthetics and athletics, economics and politics, and even victory and defeat. But England's Jason Roy and Afghanistan's Mohammad Shahzad, two contrasting cricketers who are destined to face off against one another in Delhi on Wednesday, now have one indelible trait in common.
It was Eoin Morgan, England's captain, who offered the above appraisal of Roy's performance in their sensational tournament-reviving chase - all 43 runs and 16 balls of it. It was as textbook a demolition as you could ever hope to witness: full face, flowing blade, measured timing. Test match intent allied to T20's power.
Three of Roy's eight boundaries cleared the rope, but one shot in particular, an on-driven four in Kagiso Rabada's first over, simply drooled with technique. "I'm calling that as shot of the day," tweeted one English journalist, inadvertently channelling the existential prejudice that holds one-day cricket back in his country. "Just warms my heart."
But then, 48 hours later in the very same stadium, there was Shahzad, warming hearts with such ferocity that he damn near burnt the Wankhede to the ground.
"It was like an earthquake!" said Noor Ahmad Faiz, a 22-year-old student from Kandahar, who had travelled up from Pune University to watch his very first game. Perched up in the top tier of the Sunil Gavaskar Stand at midwicket, baking in the afternoon sun but cavorting with his countrymen at the preposterous barrage down below him, Noor was living a dream that Roy, only two days earlier, had demonstrated could yet be a reality.
There was belief in those bleachers - face-painted, lungi-ed, flag-hoisting belief. "Where are you from?" I asked one cabal of pale-eyed, pale-skinned supporters - with green, red and black stripes down their cheeks and grins as wide as the Hindu Kush. "Afghanistan!" came the answer, their ignorance of nuance every bit as appealing as a Shahzad smear for six.
"No, I mean, which city… or village…" [blank] "Afghanistan!"
"Are you a length-ball, or a half volley or…" [smack] "Afghanistan!"
Before any further questions could be asked, of fan or ball, a ear-splitting rendition of Afghan Jalabi would burst through the PA system, and render anything but dance moves irrelevant until the stands had stopped throbbing and the bowler was back at the top of his mark.
The legend of Shahzad has been gathering momentum all tournament long but this was his crowning insanity. Far from accepting - as lesser talents might have done - that AB de Villiers' mini-classic 64 from 29 balls had put South Africa's stamp of authority on the contest, Shahzad instead accepted the challenge as if it was a Facebook friend request, and set about sending those runs straight back where they came from.
Kyle Abbott bore the brunt of Shahzad's exquisite retribution. Three sixes and a four spilled out from his opening over, the second of which - a full-frontal nude of an on-drive - featured a follow-through so uplifting it might as well have had a canister of helium attached to it.
His innings was nonsensical tomfoolery (the Wankhede scoreboard settled for the word "marvellous") and though it wasn't built to last, it instilled pride throughout Afghanistan's order - from the established campaigners, Gulbadin Naib and Samiullah Shenwari, right through to the 17-year-old Rashid Khan, who slogged South Africa's Mr Angry, Chris Morris, for consecutive fours before taking one liberty too many and being bowled for 11.
If Afghanistan's defeat was inevitable, then it was also incremental. Hope drained slowly from the match situation as South Africa brought their greater nous to bear. Afghanistan had been well ahead of the requirement at the halfway mark of their chase, but that critical 10-run-an-over rate of which Morgan had spoken in the wake of England's victory was allowed, through inexperience and over-ambition, to drift out to the realms of the unfeasible.
On the stroke of the 19th over, as Dawlat Zadran was bowled by Morris to complete a match haul of 4 for 27, Noor and his fellow Pune students left their seats as if they were accepting the inevitable and seeking to beat the rush home. Instead, they were merely decamping to the top of the stairwell, from where they unfurled a massive Afghanistan flag that kept the defiance going right up to the final ball of the match.
"We are new in this cricket world, it is all too much for us," Noor said. "But trust is the most important thing in life, and we trust in the Blue Tigers. One day, inshallah, we will win the World Cup."
While he waits for that day to come, Noor's duty is to return to his studies in Pune, where he is three years into a civil-engineering degree, paid for by a government scholarship, and one that he hopes will eventually assist in rebuilding his war-torn nation.
"I really love my country and I want to help make it, whatever the conditions," he said. His particular ambition is to build hospitals, as a tribute to his father, a doctor in Kandahar, who gave him his grounding in life. English, Noor added, is one of five languages that he speaks fluently - he is busy adding Hindi to his repertoire by spending his free time in the cinema.
Others had travelled even further to witness Afghanistan carry the fight. Amir Khan and his son Walid were among a group of seven men from the same village outside Kabul who spent several overs arguing in animated terms with a security guard who objected to their flag blotting out the ICC branding on the front of their stand.
Nothing could detract from their pride at their team's performance, however, not even the steady loss of wickets. It was as their captain, Asghar Stanikzai, had said on the eve of the match - in victory or defeat, the whole country remains united behind the feats of their cricketers, and that, in the fast-setting sun at the Wankhede on Sunday evening, was a beautiful sight indeed.
"We are very young in this format, but in T20 if the batting side is good and the bowling side is good, we will win," Shahzad said at the close. "If we improve our fielding, and get a partnership to stay at the wicket, we will stay in the World Cup." England have been warned. In Delhi on Wednesday, Afghanistan will dance to their own tune, come what may.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket