It was three balls from the end that the match finally appeared to have swung decisively. In an ideal world, Afghanistan wouldn't have wanted their weakest bowler on the day - Aftab Alam - bowling the final over. But here he was, and under extreme pressure, it was experience that told. Shoaib Malik is experience personified, and he capitalised as the bowler lost his composure and sent down two poor deliveries with 10 needed off five balls. A six and a four, game over, and a three-wicket Pakistan win. Eight hours and a bit of Afghanistan playing out of their skins, and yet no points to show for it.
The best game of this tournament - one of the best ODIs all year - it refused to get off the knife's edge. A magnificent unbeaten 97 from Hashmatullah Shahidi and an entertaining half-century from Asghar Afghan powered Afghanistan to their highest total of the tournament - 257 - overcoming a wobbly start where they lost both openers early.
Pakistan began in the worst possible way, losing Fakhar Zaman in the first over, but a monumental 154-run partnership between Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq appeared to have put them on course. It wasn't nearly as simple as that, with Afghanistan continuously pegging Pakistan back. They fell just short in the end, and the tears flowed.
Pakistan weren't nearly at their best today in any department. The fielding was shocking, the bowling too inaccurate, the no-balls untimely, and rash shots emanating from scrambled minds galore. It was, invariably, Malik who navigated his way through the madness of a team that seemed to have forgotten all of its progress of the past couple of years, bringing his half-century up off the winning shot while other batsmen chose the most critical junctures to give away their wickets needlessly. Imam was run out, perhaps too confident of pinching another single against a lackadaisical Afghanistan in the field, and Haris Sohail perhaps played the worst shot of the day, holing a long hop to mid-off just when Pakistan looked to have a stranglehold on the game.
At every stage of the innings, Afghanistan's two spinners, whose combined age makes them only one year older than Shoaib Malik, loomed large. Pakistan seemed to constantly be calculating how many overs Mujeeb ur Rehman and Rashid Khan had left, choosing to attack the quicker bowlers. You could see why; five of the six wickets Afghanistan's bowlers took went to the pair, and they increasingly pulled back situations for their side where Pakistan looked like they would get the target at a canter. In the modern age, seven an over shouldn't be complicated, but the presence of Afghanistan's spinners meant the win never seemed assured till their quota was done.
In a somewhat scrappy contest, the best passage of sustained quality went to Imam and Babar, two young players on whom a significant part of Pakistan cricket's future depends. Imam played Rashid and Mujeeb better than any of the Pakistan batsmen, regularly picking Rashid's googly, while Babar had the maturity to take his time at the start, before picking up the run rate once he got his eye in.
It was just as well for Afghanistan a brilliant piece of fielding got rid of Imam - the bowlers looked to be out of ideas as the partnership began to mount. After that, the chase was somewhat frenzied - Haris played a poor shot while an out of form Sarfraz fell trying to square cut a full toss headed for middle stump. But timely blows kept the run rate from spiraling out of control - Asif Ali, Mohammad Nawaz and Hasan Ali each hit one huge six, dragging Pakistan back into the contest just as the game seemed to be slipping out of control.
Pakistan had made three changes for this match, switching up both personnel and combination as the folly of taking six seamers to a country where wickets are slow and swing elusive began to sink in. To compound their woe, Shadab Khan was adjudged unfit, and it was clear Haris Sohail's inclusion for Faheem Ashraf had far more to do with his ability to bowl slow left-arm.
But perhaps the most notable change, arguably long overdue, was replacing Mohammad Amir to give Shaheen Afridi his first ODI cap. He was much better than his figures suggested, utilising changes of pace and exploiting his height to extract pace and bounce. But he was the prime victim of Pakistan's largesse in the field, seeing no fewer than three catches dropped off his bowling to deny him his maiden ODI wicket. However, he was among the culprits too, dropping an absolute dolly as Pakistan began to fall apart at the end of the innings.
Two partnerships kept Afghanistan together in the middle of the innings with Shahidi first teaming up with Rehmat Shah and later with his captain Afghan to steer a rocky ship from 31 for 2 to 180 for three. As Pakistan lost their discipline, Shahid kept his, taking advantage of a life he was given after Hasan bowled him off a no-ball to plunder 13 runs in the final over. He ultimately ended three runs short of a hundred he richly deserved. Three balls from the finish, it was obvious Afghanistan would fall short of a win no one in the world would have begrudged them.
There will be better days for this remarkable Afghan team. And they will feel all the sweeter for heartbreaks like this one. Just don't tell them that today; it won't be any consolation right now.
Pakistan edge past Afghanistan in thrilling contest
Pakistan edge past Afghanistan in thrilling contest