x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Blue moon rises for red-hot Shahid Afridi

Cameo helps Pakistan to a three-wicket win over Sri Lanka as the all-rounder completes double of 1,000 runs and 50 wickets. Osman Samiuddin reports from Dubai.

Before scoring an unbeaten 39, Shahid Afridi, centre, took a wicket in Pakistan’s first of two Twenty20 matches in Dubai on Wednesday night. Ineke Zondag / AP Photo
Before scoring an unbeaten 39, Shahid Afridi, centre, took a wicket in Pakistan’s first of two Twenty20 matches in Dubai on Wednesday night. Ineke Zondag / AP Photo

DUBAI // From the vantage point of inside the stadium, the moon over Dubai could not be seen on Wednesday night, but it can be said with some certainty that it was not blue.

It should have been, though, because Shahid Afridi won Pakistan a match with his bat.

He, better than any of his millions of followers, knows his batting comes off once in a blue moon – those are his own words by the way, uttered recently in a TV interview – but when it does, it is not a sight to be missed.

Afridi walked out with Pakistan wobbling at 96 for five in the 15th over, chasing 146. It would be nice to suggest he coolly picked off the runs, but it would be untrue.

A typically helter-skelter 39 from just 20 balls led Pakistan to an edgy three-wicket win. It was sealed, fittingly, with a paddled six over square leg off the first ball of the last over.

In the process, he cemented his credentials as a giant in the Twenty20 format, becoming the first man to complete the double of 1,000 runs and 50 wickets, and ended a run of three successive Pakistan losses at the ground.

The key over was the 16th, delivered by Pakistan’s bogey, Nuwan Kulasekera. Afridi thumped a full toss high over the long-on boundary first, and then scythed a six over point to reignite the chase. Around him, Pakistan stumbled, off the nervous energy he brings perhaps, but he managed to keep them from imploding entirely.

Despite the early loss of Ahmed Shehzad, Pakistan had actually begun well. Sharjeel Khan has an easy elegance about him, especially so when he plays straight, and a couple of early straight boundaries settled nerves.

In tandem, Mohammad Hafeez was also looking crisp. In the 10th over, he opened up, paddling Angelo Mathews first and then lofting him straight down the ground for a maximum. That shot brought up a 50-run stand, and Pakistan were cruising.

But it is not in their make-up yet to chase comfortably and so, when Sharjeel fell, athletically grabbed at the second attempt by Tillakaratne Dilshan, nerves set in.

A double whammy in the 12th over seriously derailed them.

Hafeez was leg-before to Ajantha Mendis, sweeping and the very next ball, a straight drive from Sohaib Maqsood brushed Mendis’s fingers on its way to the non-striker stumps; Umar Akmal had not grounded his bat in time. In no time, 67 for one, became the calamitous point at which Afridi arrived.

Had it not been for Mathews, they would not have been chasing that much. Sri Lanka’s innings had gone nowhere until Mathews arrived and was going nowhere until as late as the start of the 17th over, when they were 97 for four.

Hafeez, Saeed Ajmal and Afridi had worked their way efficiently through nine overs across the middle, bowling tight lines and generally constricting run-scoring opportunities.

There were only three boundaries in that spell and a couple of wickets meant that Pakistan, with a glut of international cricket behind them, were looking scarily efficient.

But Lahiru Thirimanne pulling Sohail Tanvir for a boundary was the signal for Mathews to take over. Bilawal Bhatti, so impressive until then, was taken for 18 in a critical 18th over.

Mathews flicked and thumped three boundaries, though he was badly dropped by Hafeez among the carnage.

Thirimanne helped by depositing Ajmal for a six. And by the time the last over was beginning, and Mathews was driving another boundary, his fifty was up. He was out next ball, but had timed the burst precisely: the last five overs produced 56.

That looked enough, especially as there was no blue moon.