Afghanistan and Pakistan set to play first T20I cricket series

Neighbours set to square off at match played at Sharjah Cricket Stadium in the United Arab Emirates.

Third Twenty20 International - England v Pakistan
Pakistan is currently ranked third in the International Cricket Council T20I rankings [File: Lee Smith/Action Images via Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Afghanistan and Pakistan are set to resume their cricket rivalry, facing off in the first bilateral series in years.

The game on Friday starting at 7pm (16:00 GMT) will be played at Sharjah Cricket Stadium in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It will be the first of three T20 International (T20I) matches between the two teams in the series, with the other two scheduled for March 26 and 27.

Pakistan will be led for the first time by leg-spinning all-rounder Shadab Khan, following a decision to rest regular captain Babar Azam.

Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf, Mohammad Rizwan and Fakahar Zaman are other notable absentees, as Pakistan looks to introduce new talents who impressed in the recently concluded Pakistan Super League (PSL), the country’s domestic T20 tournament.

“The uncapped players in our squad have earned their call-ups given their consistent performances in domestic cricket and impactful displays in the PSL,” Khan said before the series.

Pakistan is expected to give a cap to Ihsanullah, an express fast bowler who took 22 wickets in the PSL and won the Player of the Tournament award.

Swashbuckling Saim Ayub, whose audacious shot-making during the PSL turned heads, is also part of the new-look squad.

For its part, the Afghanistan team will be skippered by leg-spinner Rashid Khan, while former captain Mohammad Nabi also makes a return to the squad.

The Afghan squad is in good form, having swept the hosts UAE during a three-match T20I series last month. Experienced batters Ibrahim Zadran and Karim Janat both scored half-centuries during the series.

They will be joined by Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Fazalhaq Farooqi, who also participated in the PSL.

Pakistan, currently ranked third in the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20I rankings, will be playing its first international T20 match since the T20 World Cup last year, in which they were the runners-up.

Afghanistan, who are ranked tenth, were originally scheduled to play Australia. In January, however, the former T20I World Champions pulled out of the series, citing the curbs against women put in place by the Taliban, which took over Afghanistan in August 2021.

Afghanistan cricket team
Afghanistan’s team celebrate during a match against Bangladesh in 2019 [File: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters]

While the current series between Afghanistan and Pakistan may not be significant for ranking points or qualification for any upcoming major cricket event, it signals a potential thaw in the relationship between the neighbours.

After a massive bomb blast in Kabul in May 2017, the then-Afghan government had announced the cancellation of a proposed bilateral series against Pakistan at the time.

The Afghan intelligence agency had then accused the Haqqani Network of being behind the attack, alleging that the armed group was assisted from Pakistan.

“In light of the findings of security services and calls by the Afghan nation, the ACB hereby cancel all kinds of cricket matches agreement with the Pakistan Cricket Board,” the Afghan Cricket Board (ACB) had said.

The two teams continued facing off in multilateral tournaments, such as World Cup or Asia Cup, and have now decided to square off in a bilateral series.

“We appreciate Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) willingness to play Afghanistan in March,” ACB chairman Mirwais Ashraf said in a statement earlier this month. “This is a significant accomplishment for two neighboring countries. We are hopeful and looking forward to extending our ties with PCB, as well as continuing great partnerships and frequent cricketing assignments with them, which will help us further strengthen our team and our cricket altogether,” added Ashraf, a former Afghanistan player.

The PCB also welcomed the development, and its chairman Najam Sethi in a statement said that the two countries share “cordial ties”.

“Afghanistan players are hugely popular in the Pakistan Super League. I am sure when cricketers from both sides will wear national jerseys for the upcoming international series, they will demonstrate the highest levels of performances and entertain the passionate and cricket-loving crowds,” he said.

The teams have met seven times in all, playing three T20I and four one-day international matches in their rivalry, with Pakistan always coming on top.

However, recent matches have witnessed trouble between the two sets of supporters, as well as heated arguments between the players on the field.

The last encounter in September 2022 during an Asia Cup game ended with Pakistan clinching a thrilling victory with just one wicket remaining.

After tempers flared in the stands, the PCB announced it would lodge a complaint against the ICC for “crowd trouble”. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Asif Ali and Afghanistan’s Fareed Ahmad were fined by the ICC for an altercation on the ground.

There were similar scenes during a match between the two at the 2021 T20 World Cup that saw Pakistan secure yet another dramatic victory after scoring 24 runs in one over.

To prevent any crowd trouble at Friday’s match, organisers said they will provide extra security and separate supporters in different stands.

Source: Al Jazeera