Iftikhar Ahmed should not have been able to achieve a century in an ODI. The verdict was still out on his position in Pakistan’s starting lineup, and the Asia Cup opener against Nepal was only his 15th one-day international.
Even if Iftikhar is the least cynical person in the world, he may believe that his replacement is always being sought in the background, as he turns 33 on Sunday.
Given the players who bat before him, he should not have been placed in his current batting position. In this World Cup cycle, Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, and Babar Azam have been the most dependable top three batsmen in the world; approximately two-thirds of Pakistan’s One-Day International runs have come from their arms. No other top three has contributed over 55% of their team’s runs since the conclusion of the previous ODI World Cup.
Only once before in his ODI career has Iftikhar confronted more than 41 deliveries, and his inability to translate his formidable T20 power hitting into ODI cricket has been a source of persistent frustration.
Pakistan’s top order was anticipated to pulverize Nepal’s bowlers in the sweltering Multan afternoon heat, but a brace of run-outs and some soft dismissals prompted Iftikhar to bat in the 28th over, the earliest he has batted since making his debut in 2015. And he saw an opportunity he knew he would rarely have.
“Due to the manner in which our top order strikes, they typically extend matches to a very late stage. It has been a while since I batted so early,” Iftikhar said after the game.
“Typically, I arrive between the 40th and 45th over. However, as a professional, you must be prepared for any circumstance and continually develop your skills.
I am now aware that I will have limited opportunities to construct innings. I concentrate on forceful striking because that is what I will be required to do most often.
However, training to go deep in his crease, remove his front limb, and smash to long-on is not always required in the middle overs of an innings that requires reconstruction.
With Babar at the other end and fragility concerns further down the order, Pakistan had to navigate their way from 124 to 4 to a position where Iftikhar’s big-hitting abilities would be useful later. That meant he had to perform one of the tasks that have proven difficult for him in this format: wait.
Iftikhar discovered that it aided him, despite the fact that it did not pose a problem for Babar. With Nepal slowing the ball down and the surface not being as conducive to strokes, he needed all the assistance he could get.
“Babar is a player of the highest caliber, and when he rotates the strike as effectively as he does, he relieves you of all strain. During our partnership, we were simply conversing ordinarily and enjoying ourselves,” said Iftikhar.
“The object initially adhered to the surface. In Pakistan, regardless of the weather, the ball clings in the first innings, and the sluggish bowling of the bowlers gives it even more traction.
Initially, I found the wicket extremely difficult to acclimatize to. But as I continued to play, the ball began to locate the center of my bat.”
Iftikhar stated this in his customary self-deprecating manner, which did not quite do justice to the assault he launched against Nepal.
Up until the 39th over, he had scored 36 runs at slightly more than a run per ball. But as the innings approached the phase he actually trains for, Iftikhar discovered the platform he had always desired.
He amassed 73 runs off the last 37 balls he faced, manipulating the pitch with deft placement one instant and removing it from the equation with monstrous striking the next.
He reached his century in the penultimate over, during which he ran Karan KC into the ground. Iftikhar’s brute force was on display for the first four and six that propelled him to 97, before a deft cut to short third brought him to the century that his age, batting position, and circumstance had previously conspired to deny him.
“As a professional, every athlete desires a century. Obtaining a perfect score at number six is challenging, so I was quite pleased.
It is never simple in international cricket to achieve a century against any team. Nepal did not receive this position; they earned it.
They have defeated numerous opponents to reach this point. They are a very strong club, but we are currently in excellent form.”
Once more, the emphasis was on the group rather than the individual, but Multan would not be deterred from loving this superstar individually.
At the conclusion of the innings, the entire stadium began to echo with chants of “Ifti Chacha” (uncle), an unusual nickname for a 32-year-old. This occurred at a time when Babar, a man whose veneration transcends Pakistan’s partisan city divisions, was batting on 150.
A local journalist subsequently revealed to Iftikhar that he had been more pleased to see him score a hundred than Babar score one.
Iftikhar beamed shyly, and the conversation eventually turned to Saturday’s match against India. Cricket may shortly move on from this contest, but on a day when the heat and humidity were enough to drive anyone mildly insane, Multan went absolutely bonkers for Ifti-mania.