Afghanistan makes a spirited chase before fading out against the spinners

Umar Akmal has been chafed by quite a few problems in the recent past. While he was afflicted by seizure in August last year, he had a run-in with the Lahore police weeks ago. But if Akmal ever required a balm to alleviate the grief, he found it on Thursday.

The spunky ’keeper-batsman produced a dashing, coming-of-age hundred as Pakistan condemned Afghanistan to a 72-run defeat in the Asia Cup here. The latter had fronted up admirably well, but Pakistan dodged the bullet and bowled its opponent out for 176. It also took home a bonus point, and Akmal the man-of-the-match award.

The most exciting aspect of Afghanistan’s pursuit of 249 was right at the top as Noor Ali Zadran dealt in crunchy back-foot punches. But, Asghar Stanikzai’s crawl did no good to the run-rate, and things began to unravel eventually. Once the spinners — Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez, and Shahid Afridi — were introduced, Afghanistan’s innings was terminated quickly.

Earlier, Akmal’s innings, for a bulk of its duration, remained within the framework of Pakistan’s trouble-ridden innings. But, when the 23-year-old knew he had shepherded his team into the safe zone, he pulled out of the satchel the ruthless strikes he is known for.

Of course, Akmal received a let-off — he was dropped on 28 by Samiullah Shenwari with the score reading 146 for six — and made sure it wasn’t frivolously tossed aside.

He proceeded, along with Anwar Ali, to raise 60 for the seventh wicket; the batting Powerplay yielded a mere 22 runs, but importantly wickets were preserved. In the last 10 overs, Akmal turned into a frenzied counter-puncher, whipping balls over mid-wicket and point.

After Anwar departed, Umar Gul shared with Akmal the hitting duties. Akmal continued to be in his own bubble, churning out flicks and drives aplenty.

When the last over began, Akmal was batting on 85. After two bottom-hand propelled boundaries, he refused two singles.

Then, he jumped out to clobber one over long-on, and leapt in unfettered celebration.

Earlier, Afghanistan’s bowling effort was a surprise on many counts, not least because of its rigorously disciplined operation.

Naturally endowed with strong shoulders, the Afghan pacemen were always expected to ratchet up the speed. But, it was the performance of the spinners — left-armer Hamza Hotak and leggie Shenwari — that few saw coming.

The initial thrust, in any case, was provided by the Zadrans — Shapoor and Dawlat. While Shapoor, the left-armer, clattered in from the edge of the 30-yard circle, Dawlat’s action bore a likeness to Waqar Younis. With some bustling pace, they stifled Pakistan. Sharjeel Khan, in fact, was lucky to escape after gloving behind.

Skipper Mohammad Nabi brought spin into play in the ninth over with his off-breaks. Not long after, Sharjeel carted one straight into deep mid-wicket’s hands.

By now, Mirwais Ashraf, a miserly dibbly-dobbler, was introduced. The pressure created by Ashraf and Hotak resulted in Mohammad Hafeez’s dismissal.

Spectacular collapse

It proved to be the trigger for the kind of spectacular collapse Pakistan is synonymous with. Ahmed Shehzad, after grafting his way to a half-century, found his way to the pavilion — his erratic slog caught the inside-edge and made contact with the stumps. Between overs 22 and 30, Pakistan made 36, losing four wickets.

If only Afghanistan had fielded better and hadn’t endured the nerves that typically plague a newcomer, a glittering upset wouldn’t have been beyond it.

Scoreboard:

Pakistan: Sharjeel Khan c Noor Ali Zadran b Hamza Hotak 25 (37b, 2x4, 1x6), Ahmed Shehzad b Samiullah Shenwari 50 (74b, 7x4), Mohammad Hafeez c Mohammad Nabi b Mirwais Ashraf 10 (16b, 1x4), Sohaib Maqsood c Asghar Stanikzai b Samiullah Shenwari 13 (25b, 2x4), Misbah-ul-Haq (run-out) 0 (0b), Umar Akmal (not out) 102 (89b, 7x4, 3x6), Shahid Afridi b Dawlat Zadran 6 (11b), Anwar Ali c Nawroz Mangal b Mirwais Ashraf 21 (36b, 2x4), Umar Gul b Dawlat Zadran 15 (12b, 1x4, 1x6), Saeed Ajmal (not out) 1 (1b); Extras (lb-2, w-2, nb-1): 5; Total (for eight wkts. in 50 overs): 248.

Fall of wickets: 1-55 (Sharjeel), 2-78 (Hafeez), 3-89 (Shehzad), 4-89 (Misbah), 5-108 (Maqsood), 6-117 (Afridi), 7-177 (Anwar), 8-217 (Gul).

Afghanistan bowling: Shapoor Zadran 9-1-42-0, C10-0-73-2, Mohammad Nabi 8-0-46-0, Hamza Hotak 8-1-22-1, Mirwais Ashraf 8-1-29-2, Samiullah Shenwari 7-0-34-2.

Afghanistan: Mohammad Shahzad c Umar Akmal b Umar Gul 9 (12b, 1x4), Noor Ali Zadran lbw b Saeed Ajmal 44 (63b, 7x4), Asghar Stanikzai c Mohammad Hafeez b Shahid Afridi 40 (91b, 3x4), Nawroz Mangal run out 35 (57b, 3x4), Mohammad Nabi lbw b Umar Gul 15 (13b, 3x4), Najbullah Zadran b Mohammad Hafeez 1 (6b), Samiullah Shenwari b Mohammad Hafeez 14 (20b, 1x4), Mirwais Ashraf run out 4 (12b), Dawlat Zadran b Saeed Ajmal 0 (1b), Shapoor Zadran c Saeed Ajmal b Mohammad Hafeez 1 (7b), Hamza Hotak (not out) 0 (2b); Extras: (b-8, w-5) 13; Total (in 47.2 overs) 176.

Fall of wickets: 1-32 (Shahzad), 2-65 (Noor Ali Zadran), 3-139 (Asghar Stanikzai), 4-140 (Nawroz Mangal), 5-151 (Najbullah Zadran), 6-159 (Mohammad Nabi), 7-172 (Mirwais Ashraf), 8-172 (Dawlat Zadran), 9-175 (Shapoor Zadran).

Pakistan bowling: Umar Gul 9-0-44-2, Anwar Ali 4-0-23-0, Junaid Khan 6-1-16-0, Shahid Afridi 10-0-31-1, Saeed Ajmal 9-1-25-2, Mohammad Hafeez 9.2-0-29-3.

Man-of-the-match: Umar Akmal.

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