T20 World Cup: Pakistan's Shaheen Afridi rolls back time with a memorable opening spell against India
Déjà vu gripped India all over again as Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul lost their wickets early to a brilliant Shaheen Afridi spell
June 18, 2017. When India took on Pakistan at The Oval in London to decide the winner of the Champions Trophy and claim bragging rights, little did they realize the storm that would brew at the start of their innings. Over five years later, and as Rohit Sharma was gearing up to face a fresh-faced Shaheen Afridi, with the number 10 on his back and the new ball in hand, steaming in to unleash raw pace and power, his would've probably harkened back to Mohammad Amir's spell from the Champions Trophy final.
On both occasions, in London and in Dubai, Rohit Sharma seemed just as ready to face the lethal left-arm pace as House Atreides did when the Harkonnens along with the Sardaukar attacked them on Dune. The comic lining to both was that literally, everyone else could see it coming.
Even in my pre-match coverage, while identifying the key matchups for the game, I had mentioned that the battle between Rohit Sharma and Shaheen Afridi could set the tone for the rest of the game and it played out to the to dot. Just like Mohammad Amir in 2017 and even Trent Boult in 2019, Shaheen Afridi bowled full and brought it in at an express pace of nearly 150kph and Rohit Sharma ended up being a deer caught in headlights.
Rohit Sharma might have evolved as an opening batter and his brilliant undertakings in Test cricket is major evidence of that credibility (he even scored a century the last time India faced Pakistan in the 2019 World Cup), but he still takes time to get off the block when it comes to footwork. That was the case today as well when Sharma failed to read the length of the delivery and his static footwork didn't give him the room to make late adjustments. Cramped for room, the 34-year-old tried to play a stroke through the covers in vain and the ball ended up swinging inside and striking him plumb in front of the leg stump and up went umpire Marais Erasmus' finger.
Shaheen Afridi didn't even need to look at the visual confirmation from the umpire to know he had struck gold. He was already reeling away in celebration, as were the rest of his teammates. He knew he was in the zone and India were already in trouble.
Prior to the match Osman Samiuddin, in his brilliant piece on Shaheen Afridi, had pointed out that the 21-year-old has taken 21 first over wickets in 61 innings since his T20I debut in 2018. Rohit Sharma had a two-in-three chance of ending up on the favourable side of the calculus, but the night belonged to young Afridi.
His second over delivery to remove KL Rahul was another impeccable ball picked straight from the top drawer. Full, fast, and with a late in-swing, starving the batter of room and boom, the bails were off! Rahul tried to play it across the line but the ball ended up taking a kind deflection from either the edge of his bat or his thigh or both and went straight into the stumps.
At this point of the game, Shaheen Afridi had removed both the Indian openers with two top-notch deliveries and had conceded just two runs after bowling seven balls. From that moment on and until captain Babar Azam hit the winning runs to bring the cursed streak to its knees, this was Pakistan's game to lose.
Ahead of the all-important clash, in an interview to ICC, the youngster hailed Rohit Sharma, KL Rahul, and Virat Kohli as three of the best batters in international cricket and said that he'd love to pick the wicket of at least one. By the end of the night, he had the wickets of all three in his pocket as well as the Player of the Match award after a historic victory for Pakistan.
"Glad I was able to execute the team plan. The plan was pick early wickets and then come back in the death and pick wickets again," said Afridi in the post-match presentation ceremony.
"I worked hard on my swing yesterday in the nets. It becomes easy for batsmen if it doesn't. I didn't mind going for runs in order to pick up wickets. [On the chase] The new ball will be difficult but the ball is coming onto the bat nicely," the pacer added.
If today was a sign of things to come from Pakistan in the T20 World Cup and with Shaheen Shah Afridi in red-hot form, opposition batters will have nightmares and several sweaty, nervy conversations with the team's analysts and coaches. How to pick Shaheen Afridi? The thing is, on his night, you can't really do much about him, and make no mistake, this night belonged to him.