Shorn off their captain and their two frontline pacers, and on the back of two emphatic and demoralising defeats, it would have been easy for New Zealand to down tools and go through the motions under Gaddafi lights. But New Zealand seem to thrive when they are written off and skipper Tom Latham knew exactly what the side needed to do to get back into the series after winning the toss and electing to bat first.

Latham was pivotal in guiding New Zealand to 163-5 on the same pitch on which they were dismissed for 94 off less than 100 deliveries in the opening game three days ago.

The left-hander got a reprieve early on when a Pakistan leg-before review returned an umpire’s call on a devilish Shaheen Shah Afridi in-swinger, but then you always need do luck to be on your side if you are to survive Shaheen’s first over.

From there on in, the skipper looked steady and made 64 on another two-paced wicket that didn’t allow the batsmen the luxury of hitting through the line. Babar would have been especially disappointed with the efforts of his spinners Shadab Khan and Imad Wasim.

The usually reliable Imad had a bad day with both bat and ball as he went for 0-22 in his two overs and was then dismissed for three off five.

Latham, showing almost prophetic foresight, had said after winning the toss that his side would be happy with 160 and he can be especially proud of that assessment after his side restricted Pakistan to 159 in a match that finished closer than anyone would have thought after Pakistan’s batting collapse.

Pakistan were playing catch-up right from the off as Babar Azam and Muhammad Rizwan’s early dismissals meant the hosts were forced to consolidate early on. The hosts were caught somewhere in the middle as New Zealand kept chipping away even as the run-rate continued to rise.

Spinners Ish Sodhi and Rachin Ravindra applied a death grip in the middle overs and the difference in the output of the spinners eventually decided the game. New Zealand’s six overs of spin yielded 3-39, a massive improvement over Pakistan’s spin figures of 1-56 in the same number of overs.

Pakistan’s batting struggles were summed up by the fact that in the first 15 overs, wickets came more regularly than boundaries did. By the time Shadab was dismissed, with the score at 88 and the match seemingly all but over, Pakistan had lost seven batsmen for a combined tally of three fours and one six.

But when all seemed lost, Ifti-mania gripped the Gaddafi and sent it from hopeless despair to unbelieving delirium. Babar opted to hold back Iftikhar Ahmed, sending in Shaheen and Faheem Ashraf ahead of the specialist batsman in order to keep the right-hand/left-hand combination going.

It seemed a strange move at that time but may have been a masterstroke in hindsight since it meant Iftikhar did not face much spin against two spinners who naturally turn the ball away from the right-hander’s hitting arc.

Iftikhar has garnered himself a small cult following due to his quirky social media presence and antics, but he commands nowhere near the awe and admiration that others in the side do.

No one would have complained had Iftikhar been dropped in favour of the more mercurial Muhammad Harris, most tellingly not even Iftikhar himself.

The 32-year-old goes under the radar because of his unassuming and unimposing nature but he has quietly made himself an important support cog in a machine filled to the brim with established superstars and precocious youngsters.

Few batsmen in the world would have accepted being demoted down the order in favour of the likes of Shaheen, who has made fewer runs in his 50-match T20I career than Iftikhar eventually did on the night.

Fewer still would have accepted it when they are in the form of their lives — no batsman has hit more sixes in 2023 than Iftikhar. His chacha moniker may be based more than a little unfairly on his looks but Iftikhar has now grown into a senior member of this side.

Only Imad and Fakhar Zaman are older than him and among the specialist batsmen in the squad only Babar and Rizwan have more T20 experience. And yet Iftikhar is content with surrendering the limelight to others and play a supporting role, happy to contribute when his time arrives after his more talented teammates have failed.

It is a strange quirk of this Pakistan side that Iftikhar is the only specialist batsman in the squad who isn’t more comfortable further up the order, especially considering Pakistan’s opening struggles for nearly two decades.

Iftikhar showed the value of a natural middle-order batsman as his barrage of late sixes got Pakistan to within one blow of a remarkable win. Had it not been for James Neesham — the one player no cricket fan could ever begrudge a successful final over — Iftikhar would have managed to pull off an incredible heist.

New Zealand are back in the series and will be looking to level it as the two sides travel to Rawalpindi for the final two T20Is. For Babar and Pakistan, they can take heart in the way different sections of the batting order have stood up in the three T20Is so far.

The middle-order impressed in the first T20I before the openers dominated in the second, and when those failed in the third T20I, the lower-order stood up in valiant albeit eventually fruitless manner.

For now, it is time to recognise that Iftikhar’s importance to the side is not diminished by the fact that he is its least spectacular member.

His incredible 60 off 24 may have ended up being an almost-there knock but it shows the remarkable ability of a man who is often a bridesmaid but never the bride. Perhaps it is time to give Iftikhar the flowers he deserves.


The author is a freelance journalist

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