Enigmatic Shahzad an Afghan inspiration

Wicketkeeper-batsman posts another hundred in Intercontinental Cup as Afghanistan chase Test cricket dream

Adam Burnett

12 April 2016, 01:18 PM

If Afghanistan are to put themselves in a position to challenge for Test status in 2018, they will be heavily reliant on one of cricket's most entertaining characters, Mohammad Shahzad.

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Shahzad, who yesterday plundered his second straight century of the Intercontinental Cup – a three-year tournament made up of eight Associate nations – drew universal acclaim during the recent ICC World T20 event as much for his antics as his ability (though he did impress with the latter as well) as Afghanistan surged into the Super 10s stages for a shot at the world's best.

Far from cowed by the company, the rather rotund 'keeper-batsman maintained the rage.

Of the preeminent paceman of the past decade, he observed: "I love playing Dale Steyn, because Dale Steyn is not dangerous."

And when they toppled eventual tournament winners West Indies in their final group match, he led the way with his own version of the 'Champion' dance.

Had he hailed from a cricketing powerhouse, Shahzad's theatre would likely be construed as arrogance, but as a former refugee, playing for the ultimate underdogs, it was embraced with the good spirit with which it was doubtless intended.

Chris Gayle celebrated heartily with the Afghans and Shahzad's refreshing character was lauded worldwide as Afghanistan finished the World T20 with a whole new army of friends and followers.

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Now they seek an unlikely shot at entering Test cricket, via the Intercontinental Cup, where they currently sit in fifth position behind Ireland, the Netherlands, Hong Kong and Scotland.

The winners of that tournament – set to conclude in 2018 – will play off against the lowest-ranked Test team for official Test status.

Afghanistan drew with Scotland in a rain-affected affair last June, then thrashed Papua New Guinea by 201 runs in November.

Presently, they're well in front after two days of action against Namibia, Shahzad's 139 at the top of the order helping them to a 162-run first-innings lead.

Shahzad is no stranger to scoring big runs at Associate level.

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The right-hander has four ODI hundreds against his name and one in Twenty20 cricket, the result of which was his rise to No.8 in the ICC T20 rankings earlier this year.

Perhaps his finest hand was in the Intercontinental Cup, when he made a magnificent 214no as Afghanistan chased 494 in the fourth innings to stun Canada, and in 17 matches at first-class level, he averages 51, with three hundreds and eight fifties.

Curiously, Shahzad was not part of the historic Afghanistan squad that took part in the 2015 World Cup, as selectors sought a new path that they feared a man of his dimensions may not be able to tread.

Tellingly, it was new coach Inzamam-ul-Haq who brought him back into the fold, and he has continued to enhance his reputation as a match-winner since, scoring more runs for his country than anyone as they bid to climb the Intercontinental Cup ladder.

An outright win over Namibia will propel them into third place, with matches against Ireland (first) and the Netherlands (second) still to come.