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Shahzad, the face of fearless New Afghanistan

Mohammad Shahzad has a way of becoming the epicentre of action on a cricket field if he’s part of the match. The word ‘epicentre’ is advisedly used, since Shahzad’s batting has caused a fair bit of tectonic plate shifting in Afghanistan’s stirring run at the ICC World Twenty20 2016.

Three matches in the first round, three victories. Shahzad’s scores were 61, 41 and 40 – each one at better than a run-a-ball. The upshot was Afghanistan sailing through to the Super 10s round. This was a different Afghanistan, however, than the one the cricket world had gotten used to seeing over the past six years, since they first took part in a world event. Until now, they were ‘spirited’ and ‘brave’ and full of all the right stuff. In the ICC World Twenty20 2016 they just said forget it, we can be everyone’s sentimental favourites, but we want some wins too.

The win arrived, and how – with the biggest scalp of Group 1. Mohammad Nabi tweeted out the message that his side had been yearning to put out. But the man who symbolised the fearlessness that said Afghanistan weren’t underdogs, they were here to compete on an equal footing, was Shahzad. In the Super 10s, he had already given South Africa an almighty scare with a scarcely believable 44 off 19. He took the attack to West Indies too, a 22-ball 24 first up setting the tone for what was to follow.

But it was on the field that Shahzad really encapsulated the ‘new Afghanistan’ avatar. Like MS Dhoni, his idol, he showed smarts behind the stumps in running out Andre Russell. Unlike the phlegmatic Indian captain, he indulged in his own version of Dwayne Bravo’s ‘Champion’ dance celebration, one that reached a peak with Chris Gayle joining the Afghanistan team for a jig at the end of the match.

“I learned a lot of it from them. We have been staying in the same hotel, and Dwayne Bravo taught me how to dance to his song, ‘Champion’. So I learned it from him and tried it in the ground,” a disarming Shahzad told Wisden India the morning after his team’s six-run win. “West Indies didn’t feel bad that I danced on it. This was my own celebration, and when we play good cricket in the ground it came out spontaneously. Everyone is happy to see our team, we have good unity, a good combination of spinners and batsmen. Even Gayle came and told us we had done a very good job and he danced with us.”

When it was put to him that even though his idol was Dhoni, his batting, his uninhibitedness whether on the field or in front of a microphone – and even his opening role – was more in the mould of Virender Sehwag, Shahzad simply shook his head with the gentle smile of someone who had heard it before. “I want to play my own game. I love Dhoni because he’s my favourite cricketer but I play my own game. I wait for the loose delivery and when I find one, I try to hit it. I liked to bat like this from the start, since I was a very small kid. It’s not that I have played like this just for this World T20; it’s always been like that. Since my childhood and when I started playing for Afghanistan.” Attack and fearlessness have always been a part of his game then? “Yes obviously. And in T20 cricket, everybody enjoys that, even the fans. This is my game. I want to get as many runs for my team in the first six overs, so I go for the big shots. And it’s true that I’m fearless. I enjoy my cricket. It’s only for a short time that we get to play so I enjoy everything – on the ground, outside the ground. You should just enjoy and chill.”

There might not have been as much ‘chill’ when he uttered the by-now famous words calling Dale Steyn – easily the most outstanding bowler of his generation – “not dangerous” after whacking a Steyn-less South African attack in Mumbai. “Look, the pitch at the Wankhede Stadium was very flat and very good for batting,” shrugged Shahzad. “So nobody is dangerous there. And in T20s especially, a bowler has only four overs so I don’t anyone can be dangerous.”

Is there any bowler in the world he does think is dangerous? “In that match, (Chris) Morris was dangerous for us. Steyn is also dangerous, but not on that day. That day I told my team, he wouldn’t have been dangerous on that pitch because conditions were suiting batsmen. Otherwise, he’s a dangerous bowler.”

What Shahzad showed through the World T20, though, was that given half a decent chance, the likes of Afghanistan are eminently capable of upsetting, and perhaps even joining the established world order. “It was our greatest win,” he said of defeating West Indies. “We played against a big team, one of the recent world champions, so the morale is very high. Inshallah, we’ll get to beat some more full-member teams. We have the ability to beat full members, so we need more matches like this and hopefully we’ll get to play against all of them more – West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, South Africa. The boys have the ability to beat the big teams.”

What the future cricketing calendar holds, no one can be sure. But it’s certain that if it doesn’t have a lot more of Shahzad and Afghanistan, it will be a poorer place. (wisden India)

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