ICC World Cup 2019, India vs Afghanistan: Amid the frenzy, Mohammad Nabi an island of calm

In the middle of all the chaos and blood churn of India and Afghanistan thriller, Mohammad Nabi wore an aura of insouciance.
Afghanistan's Mohammad Nabi bats during the Cricket World Cup match between India and Afghanistan.(AP)
Afghanistan's Mohammad Nabi bats during the Cricket World Cup match between India and Afghanistan.(AP)
Updated on Jun 23, 2019 10:35 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Southampton | ByAditya Iyer (Chief Cricket Writer)

Rose Bowl is a serene name for a cricket ground. It sounds like something that is placed along with scented candles on wooden tables to liven up living rooms and dining halls. But in this late hour on Saturday, the stadium in Southampton is no bowl of roses. It is a cauldron of panic attacks and racing hearts.

The Indians on the field are looking visibly tensed. Some are even screaming at each other. Hardik Pandya is furious after a Kedar Jadhav misfield. Virat Kohli is Virat Kohli after Jasprit Bumrah gets slapped for a six. And even MS Dhoni shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head disapprovingly when Afghanistan reduce the final equation to 16 runs from six deliveries to cause the upset of this World Cup.

READ | India showed too much respect to Afghanistan spinners - Krishnamachari Srikkanth

In the middle of all this chaos and blood churn, Mohammad Nabi wears an aura of insouciance. Bat resting against his shoulder, the Afghan batsman scans the field. There are no creases on his forehead or furrows between his eyebrows. His breathing is normal and presumably, so is the beating of his heart. But the most normal thing about Nabi is his cricket—in a sport filled with superstars and superheroes, Nabi is the only human being. He plays for Afghanistan, but who he really represents is you and I.

With the ball, he is classified as an off-spinner. But he doesn’t really spin the ball and neither does he give it much flight. The best way to describe Nabi’s bowling is just that, bowling. He takes a couple of steps and rolls his arm over, varying the line and length and speed of the delivery depending on the wicket. In Southampton, on a sticky wicket, his line was straight and his length was a tad short and his pace was slow, really allowing the pitch to sponge the ball up before it reached the batsman.

READ | Team India Report Card - How India fared against Afghanistan in Southampton

In the nine overs that he bowled at the Indians on Saturday, Nabi conceded no boundaries. Not a single one. And he took two wickets—those of KL Rahul and Virat Kohli. Rahul did most of the work for Nabi by attempting a reverse sweep but Kohli was dismissed by Nabi’s mind and the pitch. The ball simply obeyed both and arrived late on Kohli’s cutting bat and the edge squirted up for a catch at gully. The Afghan fielders were ecstatic and Kohli was furious; the unconcerned Nabi managed a light smile.

Nabi’s batting is even more unremarkable than his bowling. None of the strokes stand out and the technique is mundane. If someone was watching him, and him alone, they would have quickly forgotten that this was a World Cup match against India and all that would’ve remained is cricket on a Saturday. He walked in at the fall of the fourth wicket with Afghanistan’s score on 106 and took six balls to simply get off the mark.

Nabi’s prosaic style and approach made the Afghani journalists in Southampton’s press box sigh, and sigh often. Even India’s fast bowler Mohammed Shami later said that ‘the way Nabi was playing was irritating’. But according to his captain Gulbadin Naib, taking it to the very end was always part of the plan. Nabi, after all, wears the No.7 jersey, just like the master of take-it-to-the-very-end Dhoni.

So here we are then, at the very end like Nabi always wanted, with 16 runs needed off 6 balls and Nabi facing the irritated Shami. First ball, Shami didn’t miss his yorker by much, the leather tailing into Nabi’s pads. Casually he cleared his left leg and brought his bat down, and the ball whistled past long-on for four runs. It got him to his fifty but Nabi wasn’t aware of it.

Now, the cauldron of racing hearts got even more anxious, but Nabi’s mind was a bowl of roses and scented candles. The next Shami ball darted towards his pads once again, and Nabi even sent it screeching towards deep midwicket, but he refused the single. If Afghanistan’s most extraordinary feat on a cricket ground was going to be achieved, it was going to be achieved by cricket’s most ordinary man. And no one else.

Two hits away from humiliation, Shami ran in to bowl his third ball. It was full in length and full of spite as well and Nabi swung for the fences. As the ball soared towards the stands every heart in the stadium stopped beating except Nabi’s. Because when the ball fell into the long-on fielder’s palms, Nabi walked off the field with composed steps and casual eyes, like he had just finished a productive session in the indoor nets.

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