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@topspin reviews the recently concluded 3-match T20I series between Afghanistan and Pakistan in Sharjah.

By @topspin (28 March 2023)

The recently concluded series in Sharjah saw Afghanistan secure their first T20I series win against Pakistan. A remarkable achievement by a team who have come a long way since 2012, when these two sides first met in a one-off ODI in Dubai. It also marked Afghanistan’s first series win against a top six ranked ICC side.

Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Fakhar Zaman and Haris Rauf had all been rested for the Pakistan side following an intense schedule of PSL in recent weeks. This did come as a surprise for many of the fans who have been accustomed to seeing Pakistan stick with their strongest XI in all contests, as opposed to seeing them test out their bench strength and experiment with squad rotations.

The first two contests were dominated by spin, courtesy of the slow and dry Sharjah surface which made batting tremendously difficult to time the ball. The pitches were tailor made for Afghanistan’s majestic spin bowling attack, who to their credit certainly got more out of these conditions.

The challenge for Pakistan going into this series was also compounded by the abundance of inexperience in their batting line-up, particularly with the top three of Muhammad Haris, Saim Ayub and Abdullah Shafique. The latter had a horror show in the first two contests where he was dismissed for a duck to nab an unwanted record of four ducks in a row. It was always going to be a difficult task for them to adjust from the more batting friendly wickets in the PSL to the slow turners of Sharjah.

Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rehman were terrific but the pick of the bowlers was their seamer Fazalhaq Farooqi, who exhibited a masterclass on how to bowl with the new ball and was regularly clocking in excess of 140 km/h. He utilised his combination of pace and swing to wreak havoc on Pakistan’s top three batsmen during the powerplay throughout the series. Perhaps he could consider himself unlucky to lose out on Man of the Series Award, which was instead awarded to Mohammad Nabi who also had a commendable series.

In Babar’s absence, Shadab Khan was given the honour of captaining this series for Pakistan but there will be question marks over his decision at the toss to bowl first in each of the first two contests. On a challenging batting surface, it was always going to be difficult to determine what was going to be a par score batting first. To make the same mistake twice in back-to-back contests was not only criminal but perhaps a deciding factor on the outcome of this series. One wonders if he had misread the wicket or whether it was just a case of complacency? Even though he played well in the last match, his spin bowling in the earlier games paled in comparison to Rashid Khan. Overall, it’s fair to say that Shadab’s captaincy as well as his bowling, when it mattered the most, left much to be desired.

The words unprecedented and atypical come to mind when looking back at the first match of the series. To see a team bat for 20 overs and only muster 92 runs is a huge statistical anomaly in T20 cricket. This was Pakistan’s 5th lowest score in their history of T20I cricket. None of their batsman were able to score in excess of 20 runs. Pakistan’s inability to score freely was a reflection of the how challenging the wicket was to bat on due to the turn and uneven bounce. It was the type of wicket you would expect in the UAE on day four of a test match.

In the early overs, it was Fazalhaq Farooqi who troubled the Pakistani openers with prodigious swing. Pakistan ended the powerplay on 39/3. Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rehman and Mohammad Nabi followed up on his good work to produce remarkable figures of 1/15, 2/9 and 2/12 respectively. As a result, Pakistan could only add a further 53 runs off 90 balls to give Afghanistan just 93 to chase.

Pakistan responded well during the powerplay, with Ihsanullah in particular, who picked up the wickets of Ibrahim Zadran and Gulbadin Naib with well-directed short pitched deliveries to leave Afghanistan 29/3 after six overs. There was perhaps further evidence of how Pakistan misread the pitch after having selected only two spinners in their bowling attack. Pakistan may have fancied their chances if they had twelve overs of spin when Afghanistan were 45/4 at one stage. Along with Ihsanullah, Imad Wasim bowled well to produce 1/11 from his four overs, but he deserved more reward, as the side was let down by Azam Khan’s poor glove work behind the stumps.

The collective experience and composure of Mohammad Nabi and Najibullah Zadran saw Afghanistan through to the end with an unbeaten 53 run partnership to mark a historic first win against Pakistan.

The woes with the bat continued for the men in green during the second game of the series and it was once again Fazalhaq Farooqi who troubled Pakistan in the powerplay with the wickets of Saim Ayub and Abdullah Shafique. They were both dismissed without scoring to leave Pakistan reeling again in the Powerplay at 20/3. Imad came in at this stage of the innings to score a much needed half century to help Pakistan reach a competitive total of 130. In difficult circumstances, this was a good effort on another challenging wicket to bat on.

Credit must also be given to Rashid Khan who bowled his four overs to concede just 16 runs to go with his wicket of Azam Khan, who ended up yielding just one run after his two appearances in the series.

Afghanistan began the chase strong, scoring 45 runs after the first six overs with the loss of just one wicket. Pakistan kept fighting and were successful in stemming the run flow for a while but without any wickets until the 16th over.

When Mohammad Nawaz was brought into the side, one would think that common sense had prevailed on Shadab with the requirement of twelve overs of spin. However, he instead only opted for nine from the slower bowlers as Imad was given just the one over.

A pivotal over in the match was when Shadab bowled a half tracker which was dealt with disdain by Ibrahim Zadran. The boundary was then followed up by a wide delivery with a misfield to help relieve the pressure on Afghanistan.

Mohammad Nabi and Najibullah Zadran once again saw their side home with another unbeaten partnership with just one ball to spare. The pair played an instrumental role in Afghanistan’s first ever series win against Pakistan.

The last game of the series was played on a more conventional T20 pitch and the Pakistani batsmen enjoyed the extra pace there was to work with. Pakistan scored 182 from their 20 overs, courtesy of Saim Ayub, who top scored with 49. Abdullah Shafique, Iftikhar Ahmed and Shadab Khan also contributed with some useful cameos. Fazalhaq Farooqi impressed yet again with figures of 1/25 from his 4 overs. Ihsanullah and Shadab took three wickets each to defeat Afghanistan by a big margin of 66 runs.

The main takeaways from this series can be summarised as follows:

1. Afghanistan have proved that they have the most potent spin attack in T20I cricket. Rashid Khan showed again why he is the number one spinner in the shortest format.

2. Shadab’s captaincy was ruthlessly exposed in this series. His decision to give Imad one over on a slow surface in the second game and opting to bat first on two occasions was quite bizarre.

3. Imad’s importance to Pakistan isn’t just limited to T20Is. His presence in the lower middle order will be needed in India during the ODI World Cup later this year.

4. Shaheen and Ihsanullah have nailed two of the three spots for Pakistan’s white ball pace attack but the remaining spot is up for grabs as Naseem Shah has been far from convincing with his track record in T20Is

5. The case of Azam Khan should serve Pakistan cricket a lesson that fitness can never be comprised

6. The last contest showed that even a depleted Pakistan team is well ahead of Afghanistan on a conventional white ball pitch, so they must continue to persist with the likes of Saim Ayub, Mohammad Haris and Abdullah Shafique. Discarding them after one series played on turning pitches would be short-sighted and quite frankly a terrible case of mismanagement, as they have each earned a fair chance to showcase their full potential in various conditions.