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Box office Afridi delivers in thriller

Pakistan all but knocked India out of the Asia Cup with a tense, one wicket win with only two balls to spare

Box office Afridi delivers in thriller - Cricket News
Pakistan team celebrating the one-wicket victory over India.
A big match that lives up to its billing is a rare animal, with pressure and inspiration doing strange things to sportsmen, but when it comes off, there’s nothing quite like it for edge-of-seat excitement.

Mohammad Hafeez had done all the hard work in setting things up for Pakistan, but it was the man with the box office appeal who was destined to apply the finishing touches to a thrilling win over India. Shahid Afridi hasn’t been a batting force in a while, but on the big stage, he walked in with the match in the balance and smashed 34 not out off 18 balls to take his side to a one-wicket win with two balls to spare after India had been restricted to 245 for 8 at the Sher-e-Bangla Stadium in Mirpur.

When the last over began, Pakistan needed 10 to win with two wickets in hand. A carom ball first up from R Ashwin bowled Saeed Ajmal round his legs, and when a single was taken off the next ball you could cut the air with a knife. Not for Afridi though, who calmly smacked two sixes. It was as audacious as it was breathtaking and only Afridi could have pulled it off.

It was all set-up by Hafeez, who had a good day all-round on Sunday (March 2), despite running Misbah-ul-Haq out and dropping the simplest of chances off Ravindra Jadeja that proved costly. However, his guiding hand of 75 off 117 from No. 3 coupled with a blinder of a catch to send back a fluent Rohit Sharma and a return 2 for 38 in nine overs, ensured Pakistan had much to thank him for.

With this win, Pakistan is almost assured of a spot in the final, while India will be left hoping for a miracle and can only make it if Bangladesh beat Pakistan.

Hafeez had come in when Pakistan was motoring along after a brisk opening stand. He then weathered a superb spell of legspin bowling from Amit Mishra during a familiar batting collapse. From 80 for 1 in 12 overs when Mishra came on, Pakistan slipped to 130 for 4 in 27 overs after he bowled a first spell of 8-0-16-2.

Mishra’s first wicket was that of a free-stroking Ahmed Shehzad, who pulled a short delivery to midwicket to go for 42 off 44. In his next over, Hafeez called Misbah for a run and then turned him back, not leaving his captain enough time to beat Mishra’s low collection and dive towards the stumps.

Umar Akmal, Pakistan’s form batsman, played a shot he won’t want coaches to see. Attempting to hit his way out of pressure, Umar was deceived by the flight and skied to cover as Pakistan were reduced to 113 for 4.

Mishra had single-handedly dragged India back into the chase. When he came on to bowl, it was only the second time he had been handed the ball in an international match in five months. For all the rustiness he showed, Mishra might as well have been made of gold. That was the colour of the medal that he should have earned, but for Afridi’s heroics.

The other bowlers drew inspiration from Mishra for large parts though, with freebies cut to a minimum, as Hafeez and Maqsood pitched camp. They decided that caution was the name of the game, and that hitting out could be saved for the death overs. It was as ploy that worked, though Pakistan was  helped at one key moment by a Dinesh Karthik fumble. With the Power Play on, Maqsood charged R Ashwin, who cleverly pulled his line legside. The batsman missed the ball, but so did Karthik and Maqsood had a reprieve on 21 in the 38th over. That marked the second time Karthik had missed a potentially game-changing stumping in two matches.

Hafeez and Maqsood had put on 87 and begun to open their shoulders, when there was another wobble, with both set men out within an over off each other. Hafeez’s attempted sweep off R Ashwin only found Bhuvneshwar Kumar at backward square leg, while Maqsood was run out after a mix-up with Shahid Afridi. A tense but gettable chase had suddenly turned steep with Pakistan 203 for 6, needing 43 off 32, but the main man still there.

That India had almost enough to defend was down to three half-centuries, made in contrasting styles, from Rohit Sharma, Ambati Rayudu and Ravindra Jadeja.

Rohit hit some delightful shots on his way to 56 off 58 at the top of the order, Rayudu showed composure while making 58 off 62, and Jadeja added thrust at the end with an unbeaten 52 off 49, riding his luck and surviving a close lbw shout and a dropped chance – both off Hafeez’s bowling. Hafeez did well all-round, taking 2 for 38 and a couple of good catches.

India was initially put under pressure by Mohammad Talha, who has played two Tests five years apart. On ODI debut, Talha worked up pace and bowled with discipline to return impressive figures of 2 for 22 in seven overs, and Saeed Ajmal proved as difficult to read as ever, particularly for the tail, and ensured there was no final flourish to the innings with 3 for 40.

Hafeez started the day with the first strike, trapping Shikhar Dhawan in front to leave India 18 for 1 in 3 overs. He then took a brilliant catch to send back Rohit in the 20th over, running back from short midwicket towards square-leg, avoiding a collision and clutching the ball. Rohit, who found form in this match after a couple of average outings, had tried to pull Talha but only got a top edge. Four overs later, Hafeez timed his jump at midwicket nicely to send back Ajinkya Rahane, again off Talha.

Karthik came in at 103 for 4, and with only 23.2 overs bowled, he had the time and space to build a statement-making innings. However, Karthik never looked comfortable during his stay, though he did well to stick it out in a half-century stand with Rayudu. A further half-century stand ensured India would touch nearly 250 – a total that seemed out of reach at various stages — with Jadeja playing the supporting role.

It had almost been enough until Afridi entered and created mayhem. He smashed bowlers with the power and timing of old, but watched with dismay as one batsman after another fell. In the end, it didn’t matter that no one was left with him. Big stars deliver box-office hits all by themselves.

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