Afghanistan once again the last-day kings
A magnificent double-hundred by Mohammad Shahzad - Afghanistan's first in international cricket - took his side to a memorable win over Canada at the Sharjah CA Stadium on Tuesday, as they achieved the unlikely task of making 454 on the final day and won with fourteen balls to spare.
Afghanistan's batsmen had made it abundantly clear from the outset that the word 'draw' does not appear in the Pashto cricket dictionary, but by the tea interval it was looking increasingly likely that that would be the outcome of their Intercontinental Cup match against Canada. At that point there was still a minimum of 30 overs to be bowled, but the Afghans still needed 182 runs from the final session, and the odds on a draw seemed to be shortening.
Shahzad and his partner Mohammad Nabi thought otherwise, however, taking nine off the first over after the interval and 30 from the next five. They kept the runs coming, and it was increasingly obvious that there was nothing much the tiring Canadians could do about it.
As it turned out, Nowrooz Mangal's men had paced their chase perfectly. They had reached 184 for two by lunch, having added 144 runs - not far short of the 150-plus per session which they would need to made in order to pull off this extraordinary victory - in the session for the loss of openers Karim Khan and Noor Ali.
Many teams would have been content to settle for the draw, but Karim and Noor Ali started the day in aggressive mode, hitting a succession of boundaries against seamers Rizwan Cheema and Khurram Chauhan, and then against the spinners.
The attacking style, which is the only way he knows how to bat, eventually undid Karim, who took ten from three deliveries from Cheema's third over of the morning and then holed out off the next. He had made 42 from 55 balls, with seven fours.
Mohammad Shahzad joined Noor Ali on the attack, however, and it began to look as if, without the injured Umar Bhatti, Ash Bagai's gamble in not enforcing the follow-on on Monday might seriously backfire.
Rescue came, temporarily at least, in the form of the experienced spinners Sunil Dhaniram and Sandeep Jyoti, who managed to stem the flow of boundaries, especially once Dhaniram had removed Noor Ali for a well-made 52. Jyoti bowled a remarkable 21-over spell either side of lunch, conceding just 87 runs.
The scoring was for a time restricted to ones and twos, and gradually Canada regained control of the situation. Nowrooz Mangal, in particular, was initially subdued, although towards the lunch interval he, too, began to open his shoulders, hitting each of the bowlers for a six. Shahzad had been equally restricted for ten overs or so, but he worked his way to his half-century and by lunch was on 65 not out.
With a minimum of 50 overs remaining in the day, Afghanistan needed 273 to win with eight wickets in hand and Shahzad and Nowrooz, and they were back in familiar territory - these days, they would fancy their chances in an ODI on that basis.
Shahzad and Nowrooz continued until half an hour before tea, their partnership extending to an Afghan record of 163 before Nowrooz, on 70, hit a return catch to Ramesh David. The Canadian bowlers had largely cut out the boundaries, but so well did the batsmen milk the spinners that they still managed to go along at not much under five an over.
Nabi joined Shahzad, and they reached the tea interval without any further alarm. And then they set out purposefully after those remaining 182 runs, with Nabi largely taking singles and Shahzad continuing to punish anything loose. He reached his 150 five overs after tea, and although Khurram Chauhan returned to the attack, joined as the last hour began by Rizwan Cheema, nothing could impede the Afghans' relentless progress.
101 were needed from the sixteen overs of the final hour, and then 53 off ten. Nabi was now the more aggressive of the pair - Shahzad could be forgiven a degree of exhaustion, but he brought up his 200, off 243 deliveries, in the hundredth over of the innings.
Shortly afterwards Nabi, who had gone on to 80 with some fine hitting, holed out to sub Harvir Singh Baidwan off the bowling of Hiral Patel. But it was too little too late, and it brought no relief. Asghar Stanikzai came to the crease, and instantly dispelled any idea of a dramatic reversal by smacking two sixes.
It was he who hit the winning four, leaving Shahzad not out on 216, made from 258 deliveries with 16 fours. There could only be one Man of the Match.
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of this achievement by Afghanistan: in only their fourth first-class game they have achieved a win which only eight sides in the entire history of cricket have surpassed. 'Defeat' is another of those words which just can't be found in the Pashto cricket dictionary.