“Mann karta hai, kyun nahi karta, bas koi munh mein phenke…”
The spirit of this sentence will be lost in translation but here it is: “I also feel like it [hitting the big sixes], why not, but they have to bowl in my mouth.” It needs further explanation. It is like a predator saying: I am not going to take the risk of venturing out of my hunting zone for my prey; I will wait until something shows up where I am safe. And where I am safe, I rule.
In one line, Rahmat Shah has summed up the discipline of his batting, which has put Afghanistan in a position where they are favourites to wrap up a maiden Test win. He is unlike many Afghan batsmen who live for the thrill of the big hits. He is the dour one with a career first-class strike rate of 43, identified by the captain and the coach as the best technician in the team. Taj Malik, the Afghanistan A coach in 2010, told Rashid Latif, the then senior-team coach, as much.
It is Rahmat’s role to provide Afghanistan the base from where the other batsmen can attack. How much they had adapted since a slapdash display in their inaugural Test against India showed in how Mohammad Shahzad, who loves hitting sixes, took 19 balls to get off the mark. Shahzad, though, couldn’t convert his start into a big knock and got out trying to attack.
When Afghanistan started day two, 90 for 2 in response to Ireland’s 172, they knew this was the day to do all the scoring. Their bowlers had done their job in bowling Ireland out, and they couldn’t afford to be bowled out with an insignificant lead. Batting last in India can be treacherous; day two is usually the best time to bat.
Ireland were going to play on their patience, to tie them down and hope for the mercurial batsmen to get themselves out. They began the day with great discipline and plans. Tim Murtagh had catchers in front of the wicket, and bowled a lovely line and length. He knew he couldn’t go short, he knew he couldn’t offer room. For six overs, which went for just three runs, Murtagh tested Rahmat and Hashmatullah Shahidi with balls just short of driving length and around the fourth stump. “It had been like facing a machine,” Rahmat said of Murtagh. At the other end, George Dockrell worked with the drift, threatening both edges of the bat.
The first six overs of the day brought just three runs. This was a continuation of the pressure from last evening’s spell. There had been 13 scoring shots in the last 16 overs. This was finally Test cricket for these young teams: Ireland looking to squeeze Afghanistan, Afghanistan responding with patience.
“Their fields told me they wanted to bowl dots,” Rahmat said. “That was the game. They wanted to bowl dots. Ki yeh tangh ho jaye aur kharab shot khele [They wanted to frustrate me into playing a loose shot.] But I showed patience and stayed at the wicket, and got this score.”
After having faced 78 balls for just 25 runs, Rahmat finally got one in the munh, a full toss from Dockrell, and he broke free with a boundary, along the ground. He could now go back in his zone. The test here wasn’t the conditions or a vastly superior attack as it was against India in Bangalore, the test here was denial, to outlast a disciplined effort from Ireland. Rahmat just couldn’t afford to get out and expose a flaky batting line-up to a team with significant first-class experience. The bowling wasn’t menacing, but it took until the 27th over of the day for the first real bad ball to arrive, a long-hop from left-arm spinner James Cameron-Dow.
As the day wore on, the ball got older, and the pitch dried and the bowlers tired, the scoring opportunities began to present themselves. The strike rate went up, boundaries began to flow, Rahmat brought up the first half-century for Afghanistan, and came close to creating history by scoring the first century for Afghanistan in Test cricket.
Rahmat got into the 90s just before the new ball was taken. Ireland tried to deny him the landmark against the old ball, even if it meant bowling wides. Three of them were called too. Rahmat made it to 97 when the new ball was taken, was happy to do it in singles, but finally gave in to temptation.
All day, Murtagh had bowled without a third man, but had been immaculate with his length. Had this been much earlier in the innings, Rahmat might not even have noticed it, but so close to the century, the third-man gap tempted him. The moment Murtagh went slightly short, Rahmat opened the face, but he misread the line, was cramped for room, and played the ball on.
The sound behind him was of shattered dreams. Everyone in the dressing room was stunned. Pathans can’t be accused of not showing their emotions at the best of times. Rahmat, though, was more equanimous about it, and later said these things sometimes come down to luck. If it is in his destiny, he will get the chance soon to do this again. He might have lost the chance to become Afghanistan’s first centurion, but Rahmat has set them on track for a historic maiden Test win.