If Rashid Khan is the strong right arm of this Afghanistan side, Mohammad Shahzad is its beating heart. Or perhaps its mouth. The burly and ebullient keeper bat-cuts an irrepressible, larger-than-life figure either with bat in hand or chattering away behind the stumps, and Afghanistan look somehow incomplete without him.
They’ve been without him remarkably often though, as repeated disciplinary issues, fallings-out with the board over his fitness or place of residence, and last year an 8-month long “one-year” doping have seen him in and out of the side. The latter was for (likely accidental) use of Clenbuterol, a weight-loss drug which either way seems to have had little effect on the still stoutly-built Shahzad, who was dropped ahead of the last World Cup on fitness grounds.
There appears to be little risk of that this time round, and as Shahzad himself says, “why diet like Kohli when you can still hit a longer six?” Like many of the Afghan side, Shahzad learned his cricket in Peshawar where he was raised and remained for most of his career, only moving back to Afghanistan last year under pressure from the board. His rambunctious indiscipline has perhaps not helped his career, but his heedless and cheerfully combative character can shine through wonderfully in his batting.
A healthy contempt for the reputation any and all bowlers, coupled with a sharp eye, quick reactions and seemingly spring-loaded hands make him a mercurial but menacing presence at the top of the order, happy to take on even the most intimidating of pace bowlers and more often than coming out on top, at least for a while. Though somewhat vulnerable early, especially against the moving ball, Shahzad is hard to stop once he gets going. His compact build and remarkable explosive strength translate into serious bat-speed, making the top-edged six almost a percentage shot for him. Despite often limited footwork he is surprisingly effective even playing away from his body, and together with the seemingly indelible grin he wears while at the crease, there can be few more frustrating batsmen to bowl to.
The same fast hands, slow feet and casual disregard for conventional technique is more of a hindrance to Shahzad when keeping to pace, but his eye and lightning hands make him remarkably effective in combination with Afghanistan’s trio of spinners. He has modelled his keeping on that of his one-time hero and now good friend MS Dhoni, and though Shahzad could not be further from the cool and controlled former India captain in terms of disposition, in his execution of stumpings and run-outs – taking the ball with hard hands already heading for the stumps – the influence is unmistakable.
Consistently taking the ball with hard hands headed for the stumps, Shahzad’s aggressive approach to keeping acts a force-multiplier for Afghanistan’s already-intimidating spin attack, a combination that will be key to Afghanistan’s hopes of scoring a few upsets or even springing a semi-final run. Meanwhile, his buccaneering approach at the top of the order with the bat in hand and avowed preference for pace on the ball will doubtless see his side to a few strong starts, and be vital to putting more fancied teams on the back foot early.
Shahzad is Afghanistan’s first-choice wicket-keeper and an aggressive opening bat.