Wahab Riaz should be on a vacation. He wasn’t picked in Pakistan’s original 30. He wasn’t in the World Cup training camp. He wasn’t even in the XV originally named for this World Cup. Somebody in the camp told him to not book his holiday because you never know with Pakistan cricket. This is a mix of foresight and defeatism that makes Pakistan cricket. Anything can happen anytime; no player or no situation can be ruled out.
Sometimes Wahab must wish he was on vacation. It is Taunton. Pakistan are wasting ideal new-ball conditions, but Wahab comes on and immediately draws an edge. Aaron Finch is dropped at slip. He comes back later to have David Warner edging to third man, and he is dropped, too.
Wahab comes to field at long-on for the next over. He is received by a crowd that tries to tell him through an applause that they understand. Nobody can really. Sometimes fast bowlers don’t even know where they are between overs. They field on auto-pilot. This Wahab is angry. His heart-rate is up. He has had a catch dropped. Consolation won’t work. He has seen this movie before, at the last World Cup. Someone from the crowd gives him an elderly-sounding advice, “Down nahi hona Wahab.” [Don’t let this get you down]. Nothing has registered on Wahab, who keeps following the routine of moving with the shot, then stepping over the rope between balls and then stepping back in to field.
How can he not let this get him down? At least four more catches are dropped off his bowling in the tournament, making it an average of one per game. His average after six games is 42.25 and economy rate 6.54. Even Mohammad Amir, for whom the wheel has turned this tournament, has dropped a catch off Wahab. That’s how union leaders must feel when one of their own sells out to the management.
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On the eve of their third must-win match in a row, Wahab has sustained a fracture at the base of the little finger on his right hand. He should not be playing, but the same foresight and pragmatism tells them they will make the decision at the ground. Before the morning warm-ups, he is asked if he can bear the pain. Wahab has a crazy decision to make: he wants to be brave but he also needs to be honest because you can’t be a liability at a crucial juncture.
Wahab says he wants to have a bowl before he decides. After bowling a few deliveries, Wahab tells Sarfaraz Ahmed he can commit a 100% to bowling but can’t promise the same with his batting and fielding. Sarfaraz asks him again if he can bowl. Wahab says he can. Sarfaraz doesn’t think twice. He is in. Wahab feels twice the player. That his captain wants him in desperately.
Still you know where this will end up if Pakistan fail.
Hamid Hassan is now a commentator. He is helping the term shpageeza [Pashto for ‘six’] go mainstream with his excitable commentary. This is February in India, and time for shpageezas is over. The Test match is upon us. Every lunch break, Hamid changes out of his suit into training gear, and goes and works with the Afghanistan trainer and physio. He has not played an ODI since July 2016.
It is easy to assume Hamid is retired. Take a look at what all he has gone through in life since 2012. Part of an ensemble Associates and Affiliates XI facing the No. 1 Test side England back in 2012, Hamid bowled an unbroken 11-over spell to get the wickets of Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott. Soon he chased a ball in vain so hard he left himself no choice but to jump over the picket fence. His right foot sailed over, but his left got stuck and he landed knee first on the sightscreen’s rail grill. It was such an almighty fall that witnesses feared for his life.
Hamid had to then undergo surgery, which took all the strength out of his heavy muscular legs. With no one to guide him, Hamid overworked himself too soon in a bid to come back, bringing about another surgery. Offers started to come his way to join the ACB, but he wanted to be back. He was done, everyone said. Hamid would watch Rocky and Rambo movies, and train like them. He was not yet ready to trade the headband and the face paint for a suit and a tie.
On June 29, as Wahab is going through his dilemma on whether to play or not, Hamid has decided this will be his last ODI. Nobody outside of the team knows. It is only after the lunch break when Afghanistan come out to defend 227 that you get to know through that guard of honour for Hamid. One of the faces of Afghanistan cricket is going out without fanfare, but he wants to win them one last match. This is a turning track, and he knows on such tracks his side has the best limited-overs spin attack in the world. He needs to support them.
“I was very very keen and very happy,” Hamid says. “I was playing my last ODI and was in very good mood. I bowled a very good first over with pace. I was ready to go…”
Hamid Hasan appears to have pulled his left hamstring as Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam take a run Getty Images
Gulbadin Naib can read and write Urdu. He is still learning to write his own language Pashto. He was born in Pakistan. He was 11 when he realised he was an Afghan and not a Pakistani. When in India, he did interviews for written pieces in Urdu, and spoke passionately of an Afghan identity. He said he was thankful his children were growing up in Afghanistan, at home. When in front of the cameras at this World Cup, this last-minute captain of Afghanistan has not spoken Urdu at all. Except for one couplet, which we will come back to.
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This tells you a lot about the geopolitics of the region. Afghans want an identity of their own. They learnt their cricket in Pakistan, but they didn’t go there out of free will. Pakistan played a big role in their being refugees. They acknowledge their past but they don’t want to be stuck with it. Current players respect that, but former ones in the media don’t. They proclaim Pakistan will “crush” Afghanistan.
Back to the couplet. This one came out because Naib must not have found a translation in Pashto. He told Bangladesh, “Hum toh doobe hain sanam, tujhe bhi le ke doobenge [We have already sunk, darlings, but we will drag you with us.]” Irony is, Bangladesh themselves fought against the imposition of Urdu (and Punjabi) when they sought freedom from Pakistan. Those lines were perhaps better reserved for those who understand Urdu.
Imad Wasim can appear to be what is called a ‘burger’ in Pakistan. A rich kid with an accent, detached from the realities of the country, that’s a working definition of a ‘burger’. Imad was born in Wales, and was set for a career in medicine when called up for the Pakistan Under-19s. He does have an accent, and uses the word “mate” to address fellow brown people. Far from being spoilt, he is the kind of honest allrounder who has to consistently keep punching above his weight to stay in the side. He is a spinner who doesn’t turn the ball. He is not a lusty hitter. He is not the most athletically built. Yet he is important in the side but also dispensable. Failure in first match, and he is the one dropped.
WATCH on Hotstar (US only): Full highlights
Now back in the side, Imad has taken two big wickets and is watching a crazy old match unfold at Headingley as Pakistan look to chase 228 to keep a crazy old logic-defying run going. They have lost to West Indies and India, but they have beaten tournament favourites England, got the better of South Africa and ended the unbeaten run of New Zealand to keep their campaign alive. Afghanistan should be easy then. How I laugh.
Hamid walks through the guard of honour but doesn’t join his team-mates immediately. He is getting some attention from the physio before he takes the field. It is his lower back. Hamid charges in to bowl the second over of the innings. The first ball kicks off the surface; it is quick, but the extra bounce makes it look quicker. He is feeling it. He is feeling good. He is going all out. He needs to help his spinners out. In his second over, he does his hamstring.
“Suddenly I don’t know what happened, second over my hamstring was totally like gone. I felt like something was broken inside my hamstring. It wasn’t my wish to go like this,” Hamid says after the match. He is limping. He has given it all. He is done. He can break down into tears any moment. He still has two small Afghan flags painted on his cheeks. Rambo at twilight.
ALSO READ: The Afghan heroism of Gulbadin Naib
Say what you will about Naib and his sudden rise to captaincy, but he is not the one to shirk responsibility. He is a bit like Imad, always having to justify his place in the side. He doesn’t have the technique to open the batting, but he is doing it. He is not the ideal death bowler, but he is doing it. He is fronting up to the press every time even as their campaign unravels with off-field drama outdoing the number of close defeats. As soon as he sees Hamid limp during his second over, Naib starts to loosen up. It is the three spinners, though, who keep doing their job. In Samiullah Shinwari, Naib finds a fourth musketeer.
It is a chaotic match. The geopolitical nastiness has made it to the stands. Already people have been evicted, but the relative calm has been disturbed with Pakistan losing two quick wickets, both against the run of play, both rocks of this batting order: Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam. The only men who bring about any certainty or predictability to Pakistan are both gone.
There has been a quote going around these days that is being attributed to Ricky Ponting. That Pakistan beat whomever they want, and they lose to whomever they want. It’s not Pakistan v the opposition, but Pakistan v Pakistan. It can’t be ascertained if Ponting indeed said it, but that is exactly what Pakistan have done through those two wickets.
Imad Wasim won Pakistan the game from a seemingly hopeless situation Getty Images
All bets are off now. Every dot is waking up the Afghanistan crowd. That familiar feeling is back in the Pakistan camp. Mohammad Hafeez resists the temptation to get out to a part-timer again before cutting the first ball back from Mujeeb Ur Rahman in air. Haris Sohail gets a superb ball from Rashid Khan who is as illegible right now as Farsi, Afghanistan’s other strong language. Sarfaraz Ahmed, who anchored a similar chase against Sri Lanka in the 2017 Champions Trophy, runs himself out.
Suddenly Naib’s words have come back to haunt the side that understands Urdu: We have already sunk, darlings, but we will drag you with us. Afghanistan have had a shot against all Asian sides, but have heartbreakingly fallen short. Afghanistan are the heartbreak of this tournament. They are unravelling in front of our eyes, but we – hampered by language – can’t even ascertain what is happening. There is a lot of politics, that much can be said. For the sake of Rashid, of Nabi, of Mujeeb, of fighting batsmen Rahmat and Najib, for the sake of current and former captain Naib and Asghar, for the outgoing affable coach Phil Simmons, we want them to win at least one game. But do we want the win to come at the expense of the greatest story of this World Cup?
This is as good a chance as any for Afghanistan, though. They are defending a total unlike other games, which is the ideal scenario for them. Except that Imad is playing the smart game out there. He doesn’t care if he has to play out four maidens from Rashid. He doesn’t care if he keeps patting Mujeeb’s carrom balls back to him. He knows Hamid is injured, and someone quicker or a lesser spinner has to bowl his quota. He wants Afghanistan to make that choice: is it a quicker bowler or part-timer Samiullah? How long can they delay that decision?
Naib makes that decision in the 46th over with 46 still to get. Out of the five remaining overs, three are locked in for Rashid and Mujeeb. Naib and Samiullah are the options for the other two. Naib knows Samiullah has bowled well, but he also knows Pakistan are going to target him now. He has had the experience of bowling at the death in this tournament. It’s not ideal, but Naib brings himself on. In his mind, Naib is doing the brave thing again.
Imad picks his spot first ball and helps along a low full toss – a yorker gone wrong – into the leg side for four. Naib learns his lesson, rolls his fingers over the next one, Imad miscues the attempted shot over extra cover, Asghar runs after it, this is going to be a catch. What redemption it is for Naib. He can flex his biceps again. Sweet win at last. Except Asghar over-runs it. Asghar has been running and diving after everything, he has been helping Naib out with decision-making, but he has over-run this catch. Who else but Naib and Asghar to be at the centre of this heartbreak?
Later in the over, an outside edge flies away for four. Naib stands in the middle of the pitch, hands on knees, unable to believe what is happening. Eighteen runs come off the over. Now Rashid and Mujeeb have only 27 to defend in the last four. In the change rooms, Hamid is struggling to keep his emotions in check. If only he could give them two more overs at this stage, he is thinking.
Wahab Riaz connects with the defining blow of the match Getty Images
Naib finds a way to get back into the game again. In the 47th, he swoops in on what looks like a certain two, catches Shadab Khan unawares with a smooth quick return by the stumps to run him out. Once again, Afghanistan believe. Once again, Pakistan wonder if their belief – yakeen, if you will – is actually true.
This is when Wahab Riaz gets up. He slides his right hand, finger broken and swollen, into a glove. He looks skywards and tells god it is up to him to give him izzat [honour] or zillat [dishonour]. He grimaces every time he grips the bat hard and taps it down.
Imad is perhaps still not picking Mujeeb but he has decided he is going to bat through the innings. Hardly any risk is taken as they know they have one more weaker over to go. With 16 off 11, though, Wahab finds one in his wheelhouse. Rashid has overpitched with this wrong’un. Wahab gets on a knee and has an almighty swing. Naib at deep midwicket knows he can’t get to it. There is this almighty release of emotions. Pakistan believe they have got it, Afghanistan know they have not. Rioting breaks out in stands again. Punches, rubbish, bottles, and even a rubbish bin are thrown at each other.
A chaotic finish to a chaotic match. Pakistan still believe. Afghanistan hold back tears. There is izzat for Pakistan, but by no means it is zillat for Afghanistan. At the press conference, Imad and Naib talk about their emotions one after the other. Both have found humour. It is slightly insensitive but that’s what keeps them going. About the pitch invasion, Naib says the people love their players, their heroes. It is very difficult to locate these heroes. They want to touch them, hug them at the only place they can see them. Let them. Imad jokes about heart attacks. Days after bowling coach Azhar Mahmood did about suicides. They both ask the fans to co-exist, to watch like brothers.
In the mixed media zone, Wahab and Hamid stand a few feet apart as they talk about their day. Both are talking about their pain. Wahab can look back fondly. Hamid has only regret. Wahab promises he will bear the pain and turn out against Bangladesh too. Hamid has no other ODI to look forward to, but he will get into Rambo mode and train for another year or so of T20s. He limps off into the team bus.
Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to go home and have a heart attack.