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Mohammad Shahzad deserves a bigger stage

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Mohammad_Shahzad_Afghanistan_cricketWe have been fortunate to watch some remarkable performances over the past few weeks. Rangana Herath’s return of thirteen wickets for Sri Lanka as they put Zimbabwe to the sword in Harare was one. In Perth and Hobart a rampant South Africa provided another as they completed an equally emphatic series victory over Australia thanks to the wickets from Kagiso Rabada & Kyle Abbott and centuries from Dean Elgar, JP Duminy and Quinton de Kock. At Rajkot, meanwhile, the first Test between India and England got underway in a blaze of centuries as both sides racked up the runs to defy the forecasts – at least for now – of a predictable, one-sided series.

But as the match in Gujarat began there was another performance which caught the eye.

At the Sher-e-Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka, scene of Bangladesh’s historic Test win over England last month, Mohammad Shahzad was marking his Bangladesh Premier League debut with an unbeaten 52-ball 80 as Rangpur Riders thrashed Chittagong Vikings by nine wickets.

With eleven fours and three sixes, Afghanistan’s talismanic all-rounder went through his full repertoire of dabs, pulls, heaves and smashes in that fearless mix of the deft and the brutal that is all his own. 

 

Shahzad is a remarkable player, undoubtedly the most charismatic entertainer outside of Test cricket. His batting is the American comic strip made real: a sporting onomatopoeia of bashes, kapows and crunches. Never mind Ben Affleck, it’s Shahzad who is Batman.

Another innings comes to mind. In the World T20 earlier this year, as Afghanistan played South Africa in Mumbai, we were treated to a snapshot of Mohammad Shahzad at his bustling, swaggering and most destructive best.

Chasing 209, he came out to open for a side already written off. Afghanistan were not destined to get over the line in the end, but in the space of just nineteen balls Shahzad gave South Africa an almighty scare. Thirty two runs came from the first two overs as Shahzad unleashed an exhibition of extraordinary, improvisatory shot-making that, just for a moment, had the South Africans looking nervously towards the scoreboard.    

Every ball was an event. Kyle Abbott came in for particular punishment, conceding twenty-two from the second over of the innings including alternate sixes from his first five balls. Abbott’s attempted slower ball on the sixth resulted in Shahzad’s best shot of the over as he gave himself room, waited for the ball to arrive and then whipped a wristy cut through backward point for four.

Who would be a bowler faced with this? Next it was Rabada’s turn to watch as Shahzad leant back to ramp the ball over the wicket-keeper’s head for another boundary. When Chris Morris at last got through, splattering Shahzad’s stumps, South Africa knew they had made their crucial breakthrough.

Forty-four runs, three fours, five sixes. Nineteen balls that could be held up as the pure essence of Shahzad. And he wasn’t done yet, as the cameras repeatedly picked him out on the sidelines, encouraging, admonishing, gesturing, his left arm carving out air shots as he played every ball along with the men in the middle. Theatrical, passionate, animated, this result - like every other – mattered to him. He does not like to lose.

In early July, I met Shahzad in Edinburgh. Warm, welcoming, quick to smile and with that mischievous air that often comes across on the cricket field evident as he jokily admonished me for arriving early, we chatted about his approach to the game.   

 

“I just enjoy myself,” he said. “If you go into the ground with stress you cannot play cricket well. So I just go and try to play good and aggressive cricket, not only for the fans but to give a tough time to the opposition.”

Shahzad is a card-carrying member of the Twenty20 generation, a true three-sixty batsman. But much more than that, it was his sheer enthusiasm for the game, so evident on the sidelines that day in Mumbai, which came through to me loud and clear again that evening. He just wants to bat, to mix it with the best and, in his words, smash them.

“We have many good memories of the [World T20] tournament. After all, we beat the world champions,” he said. “West Indies are a very good T20 side. Whereas other teams have maybe four or five match-winning players in their team, West Indies have fifteen match-winning players in their squad. Beating them was very good for us.

“For me, I have good memories of playing South Africa. They have a very good fast bowling attack but I smashed them!”

Shahzad clearly loves what he does, no matter the opposition or the context. Back in July, before Afghanistan’s two ODIs against Scotland, he was relishing the immediate task ahead of him.

“I am very happy to be back in Scotland again,” he said. “It is a very good country, they have good quality cricketers, good weather for me and I love to play cricket here. In Kabul it can be like Scotland, cold weather, so all the boys are happy here.

“I have scored a few runs against Scotland, too, so it is a team I love to play against!” he added with a smile.

A few days later, Shahzad’s 91-ball 84 at The Grange in Edinburgh set up a comfortable series win for the visitors. One shot in particular will stay with me, a front-foot tonk straight into the tennis courts which neighbour the ground.  

“I told you I like playing here!” he said to me when I caught up with him again in a lull between the multiple selfie poses with the Afghan supporters.

“Ha, that shot into the tennis courts…” I began.

“No, no, no!” He shook his head. “It didn’t come out of the middle. That one should have been into the road!”

Shahzad is an inspiration to millions in his home country, but what sort of star could he become? Afghanistan is hungry for much more than limited overs cricket and it would be wonderful to see what the nation could achieve in the Test arena.

The accomplishments of Bangladesh have shown what is possible, and although the ICC’s suggestions for two divisions of Test cricket have died, the alternative suggestion of a conference-style arrangement for Tests is genuinely exciting.

Let’s hope it comes off. Especially if it means we get to see more of one of the greatest entertainers in the game.

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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