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09 February, 2012

A landmark in the Afghanistan journey


Afghanistan v Pakistan, one-off ODI, Sharjah

A landmark in the Afghanistan journey

The Preview by Nitin Sundar
February 9, 2012
Match facts
February 10, Sharjah
Start time 1500 (1100 GMT)
Big Picture
Dreams rarely come to fruition at such breathless speeds. After winning their way through five divisions in two years, gaining a berth in the World Twenty20, and dominating better established Associates and Affiliates in the four-day format, Afghanistan have reached base camp - an ODI against a Test-playing nation. Barring an upset of the sort that can only involve Pakistan, Afghanistan will most definitely struggle in their first real audition in the one-day format, but to focus on the result at this momentous juncture would be to miss the point completely.

While their relationship with Pakistan may have been relegated to a love-hate relationship on the political front, the camaraderie shared between their cricketing administrations has been heartening. Cricket may have never taken root in Afghanistan but for their refugees who were forced by war to spend considerable time in Pakistan. The gratitude was repaid last year, when Afghanistan side became the first team to tour Pakistan following the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan side in 2009. People from both sides of the Durand Line will watch with interest when master and disciple clash in Sharjah on Friday. Expect a sizeable crowd, and healthy TRPs.

Afghanistan have a lot more to gain from the one-off encounter, while Pakistan will know the match could prove a banana peel before the real deal - their limited-overs clashes against England.

Pakistan's set up changes considerably when they shift from whites to colours; Abdur Rehman and Azhar Ali, who played such sterling roles in the Test whitewash of England, will most likely not figure in the XI.

Shahid Afridi, who has been nothing short of inspirational since his latest un-retirement, will reappear in the starting XI. His presence will add so much more to the squad's strength, while his exuberant ways will once again provide Misbah-ul-Haq's calm methods of control an interesting challenge. It will be intriguing to see if Afghanistan can land a few telling blows before Pakistan can recalibrate their game to the shorter version.

Form guide
Pakistan WWWWW (Most recent first)
Afghanistan WWLWL

In the spotlight
Anyone who's taken even a passing interest in Afghan cricket will know that Hamid Hassan is their most exciting prospect. He generates pace, swing and skid from a high release - methods that several Pakistan quicks have used to devastating effect over the years. Hamid's 14 one-day outings have earned him 24 wickets at 21.91 - numbers that are consistent with his performance at the first-class level. Can he slip some at pace past the defences of Pakistan's top order?

Mohammad Hafeez has endured two quiet Tests with the bat, and will be eager to rediscover his touch before taking on England. Despite his consistent run in 2011, Hafeez's batting average is a sorry 26.96, and that's down to his tendency to waste starts. If he weathers Hamid's initial burst, Hafeez's biggest enemy on Friday could be his own impetuousness. He's more certain to have an impact with his nagging brand of offbreaks.

Pitch and conditions
Gone are the days when the Sharjah surface was a featherbed favouring batsmen hitting through the line. The last time an ODI was played here, Pakistan recovered from the depths of 120 for 7 to post 200, and ended up defending it successfully. Afridi played a headlining role with the ball, but even more surprisingly, batted within himself to finish with a modestly-paced (by his standards) 75 off 65 balls. He got the ball to turn magically, and left batsmen of the calibre of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara looking clueless. Expect spin to dominate again in Sharjah.

Stats and trivia
Pakistan have won 75 of their 109 games in Sharjah
Friday will be the first ODI clash in Sharjah between an Affiliate and a Test-playing team
Quotes
"It's a great opportunity for Afghanistan players and they can't wait for Friday."
Afghanistan manager Shafiqullah Stanikzai is as excited as his team
"If you take some team for granted, that is really a mistake for you. We are not going to do that."
Pakistan won't get complacent under Misbah-ul-Haq's watch

Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo


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