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The grind behind Afghanistan’s last-ball magic

CricketThe grind behind Afghanistan's last-ball magic

It is the holy month of Ramadan. It is hot in Dehradun; this town in the foothills of the Himalayas cools down in the evening but the days swelter as if it is Delhi. Afghanistan are here, they are all fasting, which means between around quarter past three in the morning and around quarter past seven in the evening they can’t even swallow their own spit, forget a drop of water. While doing that they are also preparing for cricket contests in two formats so different they may as well be two different sports.Afghanistan

Without nutrition, on bodies bound to flag, Afghanistan have religiously ended every training session with proper fielding drills. John Mooney, the former Ireland allrounder and now their fielding coach, gives them boundary catches, high enough for you to have to get both your feet up in the air but not entirely out of reach. Other fielders hover too. The man the ball is thrown to catches, tries to keep himself inside the field; if he cannot, he judges if he can throw it up for himself to step out and come back to catch or if he has to relay it to the other fielder. If he doesn’t have time to do either, then he should just prevent the boundary. Shafiqullah and Samiullah Shenwari are two of the most enthusiastic players in the fielding drills.

The toss for these three T20 matches is at 7.30pm, roughly 15 minutes after Iftar, which is the breaking of the fast in the evening. The team arrives at the ground at 6pm, and starts their warm-up drills, which go on right up to Iftar. Looking at them, it is hard to tell they took any nutrition 15 hours previously. The last third of these drills is fielding practice, which all the coaches split: one of them is doing direct hits, one sharp flat catches, and the third these boundary ones. All when hunger is calling. If Afghanistan bat first, they take a few more boundary catches in the break.

It seems they emphasise on these spectacular catches more. They enjoy taking these catches. They are showmen. They love taking these and they work hard at them. Then, all of a sudden, it is a last-ball finish.

Two of Bangladesh’s most experienced batsmen, Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah, have absorbed all the pressure and turned the tables around by going after the 19-year-old Karim Janat in the penultimate over. All through, it looked like Afghanistan had left Bangladesh too much to do, but Mushfiqur Rahim assaults Janat with five straight fours.

This has not been a show of power. Mushfiqur has seen the field, guessed correctly what is coming, and then clinically found his gaps. Janat is inconsolable; there are pats on his backs from experienced cricketers who know even the best have to go through this in T20 cricket, but he knows he has left Rashid Khan only eight to defend.

Bangladesh have so far denied Rashid a wicket, which is part of the reason why this game has come to the last over. Because Mushfiqur was there, he managed to target Janat. And yet this is the best Rashid has arguably bowled this series because the best batsmen have played him with a plan. They have actually put him under pressure, and he has responded with just seven and three runs in the 16th and the 18th overs.

Rashid bowls another gun over to bring it down to four runs required off the last ball, with new batsman Ariful Haque on strike. Rashid is about to pull off another win, Janat is possibly thinking of relief, Samiullah is feeling he has played a part in this with a spectacular catch earlier to send Shakib Al Hasan back. And Rashid bowls a wrong’un, it seems Ariful picks it because he swings it with all his might towards long-on.

It doesn’t look it has been struck cleanly, but it keeps on going. Why the hell is the rope so far in? Shafiqullah did his drills at this exact spot during the innings break. Now he runs to his left, his momentum carrying him towards the rope, he leaps, one of his feet is about two feet in the air and the other almost hitting his backside behind him, and he manages to keep the ball inside. But, no, the ball bounces behind him because it has all the momentum. It bounces so close to the rope that advertising triangles would have got Bangladesh six. There are no advertisers here, but the four is still on.

Shafiqullah’s own momentum is going to make him fall outside the rope, and the bounce on the ball is not good. The ball has stayed low, but Shaifqullah has that final bit of strength, presence of mind and desperation to be able to slap the ball back in. He loses contact with the ball with his foot closer to the ground beyond the boundary.

And he has slapped it with so much strength that the ball has gone far away from him. Mohammad Nabi at long-off is alert, he has run towards the action and not watch it from his station. Even though Nabi now fields the rebound and fires in an accurate throw to the keeper, Shafiquallah has taken his tumble, recovered and sprinted all the way to the ball. Even without Nabi, Shafiqullah would have completed the run-out to seal a one-run win.

All told, it takes 10 seconds between the time Rashid releases the ball and the run-out is completed, but the real decision-making happens in the two seconds between Ariful hitting the ball and Shafiqul dropping it inside the rope. These decisions are made with this precision only if you have put yourself in this situation countless number of times before. And then it requires strong legs to send yourself up at the right time, and then the core strength to not fall over, to be able to on your feet and keep the ball inside.

This is when all those catches taken on empty stomach mean so much. This is the difference between Rashid adding to his legend and being just a valiant hand. This fielding effort makes Samiullah’s catch earlier mean something. This is to put a smile on Janat’s face. This is for Afghanistan cricket. This is for magic.

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