It nearly felt like a dream; it was nearly so wholesome. But it was still enchanting all the same.
Pakistan, and not Afghanistan, won after a wild 2022 Asia Cup Super 4 match, which was decided in the final over by two consecutive sixes off the bat of Naseem Shah, a 19-year-old fast bowler who made his T20I debut less than two weeks ago.
To secure its status as one of the most closely fought multi-nation T20 tournaments in recent times, the competition needed a memorable moment. It got it in Sharjah, a venue that has such an abiding and colourful history. Sachin Tendulkar’s desert storm, Javed Miandad’s six, Wasim Akram’s hat-tricks and now Naseem’s sixes.
A gleeful run as he took off towards the Bukhatir End washed away Naseem’s memory of a dropped catch at third man during Afghanistan’s batting. However, his arrival to the crease in the 19th over, with 21 needed off 12, was not greeted with any messianic fervour. But Naseem was nonplussed; at least he gave that impression. As he took strike for the final over, the ear-piercing decibels, the colourful stadium, and the minutiae of batting and bowling became irrelevant.
He was up against Fazalhaq Farooqi, who had removed Babar Azam for a first-ball duck, the in-form Mohammad Nawaz and Khushdil Shah. If a fast bowler with 0 T20I runs before last night swung and missed, no one would’ve held up a mirror to him – at best, a collective sigh of exasperation and a feeling of “what could’ve been!”, right? But imagine if he swung and connected. The delirium, the madness.
And so it was. Farooqi missed two yorkers, and Naseem deposited both over long-off to spark off celebrations that jolted a city, known to be laid-back, right out of its slumber at night.
For Mohammad Nabi and his bunch of motley men, defeat came most cruelly as Afghanistan’s hopes of reaching a major tournament final were dashed by a brace of joy and despair. But they’ll take heart from the fact that they were an epic adversary and fell short by the barest of margin, and it was not for the lack of trying.
The catharsis, the release, after a topsy-turvy spectacle was unanimous. Such is the power of the sport – sends one half into raptures of happiness and the other into gut-wrenching emptiness.