Young stars Noor and Ibrahim light the way on famous night for Afghanistan

When Afghanistan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi swats Shaheen Shah Afridi to the square-leg boundary and lets out a primal roar, Chepauk roars with him. Around the same time, fireworks go off in Kabul and fans throng the streets to celebrate Afghanistan’s first-ever ODI victory over rivals Pakistan.

Cut to Chennai: Rashid Khan, wearing an Afghanistan flag around his neck, is tearing in to hug his captain. Mohammad Nabi, too, storms onto the field and just can’t hide his emotions. Gulbadin Naib, who captained Afghanistan in the last World Cup, is being lifted by Riaz Hassan. Chants of “Rashid! Rashid! Rashid” ring around Chepauk when he breaks into a jig with Irfan Pathan.

Rashid puts his dancing shoes on once again during the post-match celebrations in the dressing room, but this landmark win was fashioned by the less-starry names: Noor Ahmad and Ibrahim Zadran.

Okay, Noor is already a T20 globetrotter at 18, but before Monday had played just three ODIs and 11 List A games. After Afghanistan’s defeat to New Zealand on Wednesday – Noor wasn’t picked for that game – he looked understandably clueless when he was sent for a post-match media interaction. Five days later, he made it to the XI and made the Pakistan batters look clueless.

Firstly, it’s fiendishly difficult to break into a spin attack that already includes Rashid, Nabi and Mujeeb ur Rahman. Secondly, Noor was on World Cup debut. But the teenager outshone his seniors, taking out three of Pakistan’s top four, including Babar Azam.

Noor is more or less a left-arm version of Rashid. The mystery comes from the different grips he uses and he can gather pace off the pitch. His whippy action makes it tougher for batters to pick him. Abdullah Shafique didn’t pick his slider and fell lbw after missing the sweep for 58.

Mohammad Rizwan is among the best sweepers in the world since the end of the last World Cup. So, he tried to put Noor off with the shot; but Noor went wide of the crease and hid the ball away from Rizwan’s reach. The batter could only splice a top edge to short fine leg.

The mood – and the tempo – of the match changed when Babar pumped Noor over his head for six in the 42nd over. The Chennai crowd got right behind the Pakistan captain. However, after pushing one into the swinging arc, Noor dragged his length back and got some fizz off the track to silence both Babar and Chepauk. Afghanistan head coach Jonathan Trott can even feel that “fizz” during training.

“You know, you take the mitt to him, you’re standing up when he’s practising, you hear that ball fizzing,” Trott said at his post-match press conference. “So, it’s a real talent for such a young lad to be able to get that many revs on the ball and spin it the amount he does. That’s all I say to him, just keep spinning it as much as you can. So, they’re really happy for him.”

On an average, Noor drew one false shot every four balls against Pakistan. Afghanistan’s team management also deserves credit for picking him over left-arm seamer Fazalhaq Farooqi on a black-soil Chennai surface.

“I think whenever Afghanistan plays, the way the spinners bowl is going to be important,” Trott said. “I think it’s a case of just having a look at the conditions. I thought we got it right with Noor today coming in and the way that he bowled, certainly for a youngster as well. The way that he bowled and started really well and then got a few wickets and a bit of momentum.

“Again, there’s always things we can work on but you know that’s what the likes of the IPL does for countries like Afghanistan. Exposes players from a young age to playing in front of big crowds and under pressure situations. I think he played in the IPL final, you know, and for a youngster of his age, it’s an amazing experience for him. So, he can bring that experience to here and put in performances like he did. So really pleasing and the more players you can get playing around the world, the better.”

Ibrahim is three years older than Noor, and his game is more suited to ODIs than T20 cricket. He doesn’t bash the ball like his opening partner Rahmanullah Gurbaz, he doesn’t play the snake shot like Rashid does, or launch big sixes like Nabi does. But he offers the line-up stickability, something that Afghanistan have lacked for a while.

On Monday, he batted till the 34th over, effectively killing off Pakistan’s defence. His back-foot drives in the powerplay and assured footwork against Pakistan’s legspinners might not be part of the highlights package, but he got the job done for his side.

After 24 ODI innings, Ibrahim has 1084 runs at an average of almost 50, with four centuries. In terms of average, he is already among the best in the world.

Trott believes that greater T20 exposure – Ibrahim has played in the BPL for Fortune Barishal – can help the opener expand his range in other formats as well.

“You know he’s scored four hundreds already for such a young age and unfortunately didn’t get another one tonight,” Trott said. “But I think if he did get a little bit more exposure in franchise cricket, he would develop that side of his game as well. He plays in our T20 side and is a fantastic player. So, the more exposure he can get in franchises, I’m not saying he has to play IPL, any league around the world develops his T20 skills. I think it will have a good knock-on effect in his 50 over cricket and Test cricket as well.

“But it’s not just the format, it’s more the playing under pressure, big crowds, different conditions, learning to play. And that’s the test of the modern player nowadays is to be able to play in all different conditions you know you go to Australian bouncy wickets and spinning wickets here in the subcontinent. It’s good for young players.”

In 1999, Pakistan toppled India in Chennai and that lap of honour became a part of history. Twenty-four years on, Afghanistan toppled Pakistan at the same venue and did a lap of honour that could become as historic.

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