Pakistan chased down a target of 228 with two balls remaining to defeat neighbours Afghanistan at Headingley in another thriller at the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
In the face of a fearsome Pakistani bowling attack, Afghanistan produced a commendable effort to bat out the overs for only the second time in this World Cup, and produced their best score batting first with 227-9.
Afghanistan bowled incredibly well, as their spinners restricted runs and took crucial wickets to stifle the Pakistani batting order. At one stage, Afghanistan looked like favourites to win, with Pakistan requiring 48 runs to win from 30 balls.
The Afghanistan captain, rather than use spin, decided to bring himself in a fateful decision. He conceded 18 runs in the 46th over, Imad Wasim became the match-winner and suddenly the chase became achievable.
The faces of Pakistan’s fans told a picture. And throughout the run chase they looked nervous as the nail-biter entered the finale. Nevertheless, they again roared their side over the line in what was effectively another home tie for Pakistan.
Captain Gulbadin Naib won the toss and chose to bat. And he at the top of the order, he got off to a flyer. He smashed three fours as he motored to 15 runs off 11 balls before swiping at a full wide delivery from Shaheen Afridi which he edged behind.
Shaheen then struck again the very next ball. Hashmatullah Shahidi, who would have hoped to provide the platform for his team, sent a leading edge to mid-off for a golden duck.
The hat-trick though was not to be for Shaheen who bowled superbly. Under the immense pressure from the Pakistani pace attack, Rahmat Shah was not to be deterred.
Rahmat continued to play his natural game made his way into the 30s. Sarfaraz brought on Imad Wasim and it paid off. He found Rahmat’s leading edge which was snapped up by Babar Azam.
While keeper Ikram Ali Khil, promoted to number four, struggled at one end, former captain Asghar Afghan came out with a point to prove and seemingly happy to take the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.
Asghar raced to 33 off 19 balls, and at the beginning of the 19th over, although they had lost three wickets, the Afghans brought up the 100-run mark.
At the half-way point of the innings, the Afghans looked in healthy place at 120-3. But the very next over, Asghar, the man who had picked up the run rate, and the man who the innings could have been built around was dismissed for an otherwise brave 42 off 35 balls.
Shadab bowled Asghar beautifully through the gate, with a ball that hit the top of off stump. Soon after, his spin-bowling partner Imad struck again, enticing the struggling Ali Khil to be caught out in the deep.
Afghanistan however, continued to accumulate. Mohammed Nabi chipped in with a useful 16 runs before being dismissed by a fine catch at fine leg by Mohammed Amir.
Many have questioned why Najibullah Zadran does not move further up the order. In the trying circumstances, he played a brilliant knock which included six fours, the last of which brought up the 200-run milestone for the Afghans.
The very next ball though he a played a Shaheen delivery onto his stumps. Shaheen struck again with his next over, using a slower ball to dismiss Rashid Khan, who had earlier played an impressive semi-helicopter shot for four.
Shaheen once more celebrated with the Afridi-stance in front of the adoring fans, in another fantastic performance in a World Cup campaign in which he has really come of age. He got a standing ovation from the Headingley faithful once more for his splendid 4-47.
The end of the innings usually means Wahab Riaz’s sensational reverse-swinging yorkers, and he delivered a completely unplayable one to dismiss Hamid Hassan.
Pakistan were set 228 to chase, but on a wearing wicket with square turn and bounce, Afghanistan had the perfect spin attack.
In the stands in Headingley, hearts were in mouths early when Mujeeb trapped Fakhar lbw with the second ball of the innings.
To add even more to the drama, Fakhar asked for the DRS. In a stadium which was previously drowned by noise of chants and horns, gasps of horror could be heard. The tension was palpable.
Opener Imam-ul-Haq and Centurian from the previous match, Babar Azam, steadied the nerves with a steady and sensible partnership of 72.
The technically proficient pair showed respect to the dangerous spinners but also hit boundaries to keep the runs ticking along.
However, Mohammed Nabi, who had been threatening from his first ball, produced a game-changing double strike.
First, in the 16th over, he took the scalp of Imam who was stumped behind by Ali Khil. Next was the huge wicket of the in-form Babar who he bowled in the 18th.
From this point, the spinners excelled and demonstrated their skill and attributes in conducive conditions. They applied the stranglehold to the Pakistan innings in the middle overs, and made runs hard to come by.
The Afghans also continued to take wickets at timely intervals so that attempts to resuscitate the innings were ineffective.
A notable mention must go to Asghar Afghan, the former captain, who inexplicably lost his captaincy to Gulbadin Naib before the World Cup.
He led his team out onto the pitch. He marshalled the troops and he strategised the battle plans for victory. A lesser man would have sulked on the boundary.
This man however, demonstrated that he is a true leader and he must given credit for such a spirited effort and competitive performance delivered by the Afghans in the field and with the ball today.
In a soft dismissal, Mohammed Hafeez, with his weight on his back foot, reached out to cut a ball from Mujeeb straight to Hashmatullah at backward point.
The recently resurgent Haris Sohail also struggled, taking 57 balls to score his 27 runs. He was trapped lbw by the enigmatic Rashid Khan.
With the heat rising in this pressure cooker of an atmosphere, Afghanistan made mistakes in the field and the Pakistani batsmen were getting in a muddle between the stumps.
Sarfaraz marched out to the middle with a purpose. He was one of the quickest run scorers in the team, scoring at nearly a run a ball, despite only scoring one four.
He however fell for 18 runs off 22 balls, due to an overzealous attempt to steal a second run. Najibullah picked up quickly and fired in with a low arm to end his innings.
During the first half of the final powerplay, Afghanistan were in full control and should have gone on to win the match. With Nabi bowled out earlier, the responsibility fell to Samiullah Shinwari, Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman who did not concede more than six runs an over.
However, with Pakistan needing a seemingly impossible 46 from 30 balls, a fateful decision was made for Gulbadin to bowl the 46th over.
The spinners had suffocated Pakistan out of the game. This was a God-send for Pakistan and Imad Wasim said as much in his post-match interview. In these conditions, it was always going to be more beneficial, as a batsman, to have pace on the ball.
Gulbadin’s first ball was a full toss which Imad swept for four. The crowd which had up until now been biting their nails and looking anxious and defeated, cheered with a roar which would have had seismologists getting their instruments ready.
The next ball, Imad smashed another glorious four. This was followed by a sky-high edge which evaded everyone, and more importantly, gave Imad and Wahab the opportunity to run two.
A leg-side punch by Imad knocked off another two from the required runs. The fifth ball of this catastrophic over was a wide, and Headingley witnessed the loudest cheer ever heard for a wide.
Rather fortunately, a swipe by Imad found a thick edge which flew to the boundary for another four to cap off a disastrous over that went for 18 runs, and suddenly made the run chase possible.
While this over will be recognised at the turning point, it was still not a straight-forward march to victory for the Pakistanis.
Just as momentum had shifted, fortune looked like it was starting to favour Pakistan when Shadab edged a four. But to add to the drama off the thilling finale, a few balls later he was run out risking a second run.
Wahab walked into amphitheatre with a fractured finger on his right hand. Like a warrior striking with his scimitar he got down on one knee and creamed a cover drive for four on the last ball of the 47th.
For his final over, Mujeeb bowled a blinder peppered with dots, only conceding 4 off the over. He finished with figures of 2-34, and Pakistan still needed 16 runs from 12.
As Rashid Khan ran in to bowl the first ball of the penultimate over, Wahab again got down on one knee and hit a huge six over deep mid wicket.
With the pair scoring four more in the over, Pakistan only required 6 runs from the last over. Gulbadin bowled the final over. On the fourth ball of the over, Imad sealed the deal with a boundary.
Pakistan needed a hero, and when it most mattered, Imad, who had bowled some handsome spells earlier, held his nerve and came up with the match-winning performance.
Although they should have won this match, Afghanistan gained more respect from the international cricketing community with their performance.
In retrospect, even if Afghanistan do not win a match at this World Cup, they have come incredibly close three times, against Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan. This in itself is a sign of how far Afghanistan has come as a team.
Sri Lanka won a World Cup in 1996 when decades earlier they were not even playing one-day cricket. Afghanistan’s trajectory to where they are now has happened even faster.
If Afghanistan continue with their progress that they have made as a cricketing nation, it will not be long before they are a force in world cricket in the future.
The magical Cinderella story that is Pakistan’s World Cup campaign continues. Their fans, who once again roared them to victory in another close match, will dearly hope that it has the fairytale ending.
They have gone one place above England in the table and now occupy the fourth spot. If they win their final game against Bangladesh, it is highly likely that they will qualify for the semi-finals.
The Spirit of 92 has been rekindled. If the flame of this romance continues to burn brightly, there is every chance that they might.