Afghanistan outplay new-look Pakistan despite Ihsanullah’s show of resistance in Sharjah

Rashid Khan’s Afghans beat their neighbours in T20 international cricket for first time

Afghanistan's Najibullah Zadran hits out at the T20 series at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium in the UAE. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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A Pakistan batting line-up which had never played together looked more like they had never played at all as they succumbed to a six-wicket defeat to Afghanistan in the first T20 international in Sharjah.

Pakistan had left behind mainstays like Babar Azam, Shaheen Afridi and Mohammed Rizwan for this three-game series against their neighbours in the UAE.

Instead, they brought with them an experimental squad packed full of some of the stars who had shone brightest in the 2023 Pakistan Super League season.

It had been less than a week since that competition concluded in stunning fashion, with Lahore Qalandars’ one-wicket win in the final against Multan Sultans. That was apparently enough time for the batters to grow rust.

After the two sets of players joined together on the outfield for maghrib prayers, Pakistan set about the time-consuming business of handing out caps. They had four new ones to get through.

Briefly, the new dawn looked to be a bright one. Saim Ayub had sparkled as a rookie for Peshawar Zalmi in the PSL, and he was thrilled to be invited to play for Pakistan for the first time.

“Whatever I had done in my life was to achieve this jersey and now I want to do justice with this opportunity,” the 21-year-old opener said after finding out he would make his debut.

Pakistan's Mohammad Haris makes a diving stop. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“There’s excitement and an element of nervousness as well, as I never expected to play for Pakistan this early.”

His first trip to the crease was only worth 17, but at least he will have something to remember the day by. The left-hander sent the seventh delivery he faced over the roof of the stand and square leg and a replacement ball was required.

That was about as good as it got for the away side, as half their side were fired out in a rush. Mohammed Haris chipped up a catch to Azmatullah Omarzai, running backwards at point, of Fazalhaq Farooqi.

Omarzai trapped Abdullah Shafique lbw to the second ball he faced. Tayyab Tahir and Azam Khan both limply lobbed up catches, off Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, respectively.

Pakistan's Naseem Shah takes the wicket of Afghanistan's Rahmanullah Gurbaz. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Mujeeb ended the innings with two for nine from his four overs. It was a far cry from the last time Afghanistan had been in T20 action, six weeks ago. Back then, Mujeeb had been forced to sit out the final game of a thrilling three-game series against the UAE, because of the brutal hitting of Muhammad Waseem.

Mohammed Nabi also enjoyed a fine return to the Afghan line-up. The Ajman resident, who had missed the UAE series altogether, took two for 12 from three overs as Pakistan were limited to 92 for nine from their 20 overs.

Pakistan were going to require something special if they were to defend such a paltry total. One of their other new arrivals at least gave them hope.

Ihsanullah has enjoyed an extraordinary emergence over the past month or so. The 20-year-old fast-bowler, from a village in the Swat Valley, was the leading player in the PSL, taking 22 wickets.

That prompted Oval Invincibles to sign the raw quick for the Hundred in the UK this summer. Less than 24 hours after he was snapped up in the draft for that competition, he was making his debut for Pakistan.

Fans in the crowd during the Afghanistan and Paksitan T20 cricket match. Chris Whiteoak / The National

What a start he made. With his first delivery, he accounted for Ibrahim Zadran. He achieved precisely the same result with his third, when his pace was too much for Gulbadin Naib.

When Rahmanullah Gurbaz was then athletically caught by Shafique, Pakistan appeared to be confounding the inevitable.

They had too little to defend, though, as Nabi and Najibullah Zadran, with an unbroken 53-run stand, settled Afghanistan’s nerves as they closed out a first win against Pakistan in the abbreviated format.

Even if first viewing was grim, there are still two matches on which to judge whether this experiment was worth it for Pakistan. The two sides meet again at the same venue on Sunday and Monday.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 7:59 PM