Asia Cup 2018: Shaheen Afridi's confident show against Afghanistan reason enough for Pakistan to unleash him against India
As the umpire's raised index finger signaled the end of Fakhar Zaman's innings for no-score for the second time in the ongoing Asia Cup, the specter of yet another batting collapse must have crossed the minds of Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed and head coach Mickey Arthur.
The loss to India in the group stage would have irked Pakistan due to the nature of their capitulation to their arch-rivals. A further humiliation to a lower-ranked team such as Afghanistan would have dented morale of the Pakistan side. It could also have moved Sunday's encounter against India into the uncomfortable realm of a must-win match which is not how Pakistan would have liked to go into what is always a high-pressure game.
Pakistan's inability to take some relatively easy chances offered to them by Afghanistan batsmen could have been seen as a major reason for their insipid performance in the field. However, a world-class bowling side as this one from Pakistan, which is known for their strength and variety, was expected to make quick work of the Afghanistan batsmen. But what transpired in Abu Dhabi was a near-nightmare experience that Sarfraz and his men would quickly like to consign to the category of 'a bad day at office'.
Unable to suppress the irrepressible and spirited Afghanistan batsmen, Pakistan bowlers committed some cardinal sins that in a game against any top-rated side would have had disastrous consequences. Wickets off no-balls, bowling that lacked the killer instinct, as well as captaincy tactics which were poor to say the least, added to Pakistan's woes.
Imam-ul-Haq, another batsman recovering from the trauma of a low score against India in the previous game, and Babar Azam took Pakistan closer to their target. It was, however, left to the individual brilliance of Shoaib Malik to guide the Champions Trophy winners from what appeared to be an embarrassment in the making as the veteran made use of his vast experience to take Pakistan to victory in the final over the game.
Whilst the scenes of jubilation for the Pakistan side and agony for their Afghanistan counterparts is likely to be the abiding memory for many, the eyes of the cricketing world were also focused on the arrival on the ODI scene of a very gifted and quick young fast-bowler, Shaheen Shah Afridi.
At the age of 18, the pacer from the Northwest part of Pakistan was presented his ODI debut cap before the match against Afghanistan by the team bowling coach, Azhar Mahmood, who undoubtedly will be looking with eager anticipation to work with the talented youngster.
For Pakistan, the emergence of Shaheen Shah Afridi as a viable opening bowling option would be a breath of fresh air. With the inexplicable decline in form of their regular spearhead, Mohammad Amir, there is a genuine need for Pakistan to look for a bowler who can support the struggling Amir at the top of the innings.
The latest in line of Pakistan's fast-bowlers, Afridi has already played 3 T20Is for his country and is a natural athlete. His smooth run-up to the crease and an even smoother delivery stride seems to indicate a future of great promise and many years of misery for opposing batsmen as they hop and skip to meet his searing pace.
But there is more to Afridi then just spray-gun pace . There is a genuine aggressive fast-bowler's mindset which has been the hallmark of all great Pakistan fast-bowlers of the past. And then, there is the temperament and desire to succeed. A youngster playing his first ODI for his country who is looking to impress all with his debut appearance could be forgiven if his shoulders would droop given that there were catches dropped off his bowling.
But, what Afridi demonstrated in his 10-over spell, maturity beyond his years as he not only shrugged off any disappointments but ran in, ball after ball, with the firm desire to eke out wickets for his side. This sort of determination is what teams need to succeed in tough circumstances and what points to a successful future for the young bowler.
What Afridi also provides is a good stable-mate for Mohammad Amir who could probably relish the opportunity of worrying about his own wicket-taking abilities with the comfort that another quick bowler is keeping the pressure up from the other side.
The second Super 4 stage match for Pakistan against India will present another opportunity for Sarfraz Ahmed and his men to take their Asia Cup campaign to another level of confidence. A victory against India will reinforce their belief that they are capable of going all the way to the top and given Shaheen Shah Afridi's confident beginning, it would stand to reason that Pakistan will not waste an opportunity to unleash their latest pace sensation at their opponents.
A career in its infancy could well be propelled to newer heights if Afridi can make an impression in the game against India. In doing so, not only can he become a hero for millions of Pakistan fans in the short run, but he could also become an integral part of Pakistan's line-up for the larger prize of the 2019 World Cup.