Injury-hit Afghanistan secure thrilling win over Canada
Most ODIs, like most Twenty20 matches, are disappointing as contests, with the outcome fairly evident, even perhaps inevitable, a long way before the finish. But every now and then you get one which makes up for all the rest, a thriller where the game hangs in the balance right up to the very last ball.
And that was the story of Tuesday's first ODI between Afghanistan and Canada at the Sharjah International Stadium. It always seemed likely to go the distance, and in the end Afghanistan were the winners by the narrowest of margins. Never was the old cliché more appropriate: it was cricket that was the real winner. And it was well worth waiting for, considering that it was switched to a day/night match at the last minute, a decision which was not communicated to some of those concerned . . .
The Sharjah Stadium has seen better days; it's a beaten-up, beaten-down, flea-bitten old desert camel of a venue. But this was its 199th ODI, and the second on Thursday will be the 200th. That, and the fact that more ODI records have been broken here than anywhere else, are proud boasts of the Emirati Board.
It has a reputation as a paradise for batsmen, and this match will have done nothing to undermine that. Put in by Ash Bagai, Afghanistan achieved a little better than par, making 289 for six off their fifty overs.
That they did so was largely due to a superb stand of 205 for the second wicket between Noor Ali Noori and Mohammad Shahzad, the best for any wicket in Afghanistan's short ODI history, and the fifth highest partnership by a non-Full member pair in an ODI.
They came together after Khurram Chauhan had dismissed Karim Khan Sedeq in the fourth over with the total on only 6, and they were not separated until the 40th. Both made splendid centuries - Shahzad's 118 coming from 121 deliveries with 11 fours and two sixes, Noor Ali's 114 from 127 balls with 10 fours and two sixes.
It was a fascinating contrast in styles: Shahzad constantly busy, a little jumpy, but unleashing some glorious drives, Noor Ali more composed, often content to push the ball around, but also displaying some fine strokes when the chance offered. His century was all the more meritorious because he was hampered by a leg injury throughout its later stages, having to rely on the services of Karim as a runner.
Bagai used eight bowlers, but it was eventually Chauhan who removed both partners, first Shahzad caught by Hiral Patel, and then, six overs and 51 runs later, Noor Ali holing out to Usman Limbada. By this time Nowrooz Mangal had had time to settle, and his 29-ball 32 ensured that Afghanistan lost none of their momentum in the closing overs. Both he and Asghar Stanikzai fell to Harvir Singh Baidwan as they tried to push the score along, and Mohammad Nabi eventually became a fourth victim for Chauhan off the final ball of the innings.
Apart from Chauhan's excellent four for 39, the pick of the Canadian bowlers was off-spinner Sandeep Jyoti, who bowled an excellent eight-over spell in conceding only 38 runs when Noor Ali and Shahzad were in full cry.
290 would obviously take some getting, but Afghanistan were hampered not only by the absence of the injured Hamid Hassan, but also by an injury to opening bowler Dawlat Ahmadzai, who hobbled from the field with a hamstring problem after bowling only 16 deliveries at a cost of 28 runs.
He was the victim of a characteristic onslaught by Rizwan Cheema, while Trevin Bastiampillai was scarcely less aggressive as the Canadian openers put on 59 in just 35 balls before Bastiampillai was trapped in front by leg-spinner Samiullah Shenwari for a 26-ball 33.
Patel contributed only 3 to a second-wicket stand of 36, but then he did not see much of the strike as Cheema piled on the runs.
They departed in quick succession, Nabi removing Patel and then Sami striking again to get rid of the Cheema threat. The opener had made 61 from just 35 balls with 11 fours and two sixes.
Bagai now took over the chase, soon losing Jyoti but then adding 109, a Canadian record, in another fine stand with Sunil Dhaniram. It took them 21 overs, but they kept the asking rate between five and six without taking any unnecessary risks, and the overwhelmingly Afghan crowd of over a thousand began to fall silent as they watched Canada's progress with ever-increasing trepidation.
Inevitably, perhaps, it was Nabi who eventually broke through, bowling Dhaniram for a fine 56, and Canada needed 74 with fifteen overs left. Usman Limbada gave Bagai valuable support for a time, but with 53 still required he holed out to Nabi at long on, giving Sami a fourth wicket.
Raees Admadzai was called up to bowl a tidy four-over spell, but 13 came off one Shapoor Zadran powerplay over, the 45th, seemingly swinging the game Canada's way. Sami, however, responded by bowling a maiden at the other end, conceding just two leg-byes, and 23 were needed off four.
A direct hit by substitute Shafiqullah Shafaq accounted for Umar Bhatti, but Bagai was still batting with great composure as wickets fell at the other end. 20 off three, 13 off two, and still the odds seemed to favour the Canadians. Five came off the penultimate over, bowled by Karim Khan, and eight were needed off the last.
But it was Nabi to bowl the last, and if I had to pick an Associates player to bowl one over for my life, Nabi might well be my choice. A single to Chauhan, and a couple to Bagai: five off four balls. Only one run came from the next three, and Canada needed a four off the final delivery. Chauhan hammered it through extra cover, but they could only manage two and a half, the run out coming with the total on 288 and the Afghans the victors by just one run.
One could only feel enormous sympathy for Bagai, whose 99-ball 91 had been a magnificent knock. But depleted as they were, Afghanistan had held together well, and the match was played in a great spirit. Shahzad took the Man of the Match award for his fine century, but there were many heroes on both sides. It was, quite simply, a great game of cricket.