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Acing T20 cricket the Afghanistan way

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Afghanistan_Bangladesh_T20_bowling_spin_cricketCricket in Afghanistan has often and rightly been called a fairytale story in cricket history. From a war-torn nation where tape cricket was the only known form of the game played, to getting four of their players drafted in the biggest league in cricket, the Indian Premier League, Afghanistan's rise has been meteoric.

The first Cricket Federation in the country was set up as late as 1995. Until 1999, they did not have the proper equipment or kit required to play cricket anywhere close to the international level. 2003 was the first time that trials were held in the country. Until 2009, they were a bunch of hitters who relied on Virender Sehwag’s savage 'see ball, hit ball’ theory rather than following the technical aspects of cricket.

Although they beat Ireland to qualify for the 2010 World T20, no one gave Afghanistan a chance. They played in two successive World T20s - 2010 and 2012 - but did not manage to win even one game.

Mostly seen as a bunch of untrained, raw cricketers, Afghanistan was barely considered a threat even amongst Associate nations. Beating Scotland in the 2015 ODI World Cup was a big moment, but they still needed a national figure, someone their youngsters could idolize who could inspire them to take up the sport seriously. That arrived much later in the form of an eye-catching leg-spinner with a plethora of variations.

It is only apt that in the month when Afghanistan are about to make their Test debut, they have recorded a T20 series win against Bangladesh and are set to get more Test matches in the future, courtesy of the BCCI.

The 2018 IPL saw four Afghan players - Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi and Zahir Khan - picked up at the auctions. Rashid and Mujeeb got consistent game time, while Nabi had a few significant cameos. Zahir remained unused at Rajasthan Royals but, as a left-arm wrist-spinner, has enough promise to be retained.

A prominent feature of Afghanistan's T20 game is revealed from these players who were picked up at the IPL auctions.

Spinners. Afghanistan seem to be bursting with spinners at the moment, and a variety of them at that. Rashid Khan was at the forefront of their victories in recent times and he played a pivotal role in the victory against Bangladesh in Dehradun.

“I play cricket to bring victories for my country and to make Afghanistan proud on the world stage,” said Rashid, early in his time with the national team. His personal situation has improved greatly but the dream to make his country proud keeps the flame burning for Rashid Khan.

The golden generation of Afghanistan cricket suggests these spinners have much more to give to the game. “We are seven brothers and four sisters, and bowling leg-spin is in my family’s blood. All my brothers can bowl leg-spin without any formal coaching. It comes to us naturally.” said Rashid Khan, in an interview with HoldingWilley.

“I haven’t modelled my bowling on Shane Warne. His release action was a bit slower, while mine is a bit quicker. In that, it is similar to how Anil Kumble or Shahid Afridi bowled leg spin. I am more like them, and have grown up watching their videos,” he told Wisden India.

Following closely on Rashid’s footstep is Mujeeb ur Rahman. The 17-year-old became the youngest cricketer to play in the IPL and was critical to Kings XI Punjab's plans in 2018. A natural spinner with a penchant for mixing up his variations, Mujeeb grew up watching videos of Sunil Narine, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ajanta Mendis. He was a natural. It showed in the effortless manner in which he flaunted his variations.

In Mujeeb and Rashid, Afghanistan have two mystery spinners, completely different from each other, yet equally destructive. Mohammad Nabi is the third in the package, a conventional off-spinning all-rounder with the discipline and experience to stick to tight lines and choke the flow of runs.

With these three contributing 12 of the 20 overs in a T20 game, Afghanistan's line of attack in this format seems to be entirely different from that of most teams. They may not have a batting line-up that greatly intimidates the opposition, but their bowling attack, particularly the spinners, create quite a few headaches.

As Azhar Mahmood, the former Pakistan cricketer puts it, 'batsmen win you games, and bowlers win you tournaments.' From Rashid to Mujeeb to Nabi to Zahir, every single one of them seems to be intent on following these words religiously. They understand their strength isn’t in batting opposition teams out of a game. It lies in bowling them out, a vital skill that is underrated or forgotten in the shorter formats.

It makes sense, then, that Sunrisers Hyderabad, where two of these four spinners ply their trade in IPL, surged to the finals of the 2018 season with a less than formidable batting unit and a daunting bowling attack. Their mantra is well and truly adopted by Afghanistan, but perhaps a tad better.

In the T20Is matches against Bangladesh in Dehradun, the Afghanistan spinners were at their exemplary best. The 11 combined overs from the spinners went for just 54 runs in the first match and 12 of them conceded just 46 in the second match. Each time, they shared six wickets between them. Even in the third, where they took only 2 wickets, they conceded just 69 runs in their 12 overs, helping Afghanistan win by just 1 run.

 

Match

Pacers

Spinners

Overs

Economy

Wickets

Overs

Economy

Wickets

1st T20I vs Ban

8

8.38

4

11

4.91

6

2nd T20I vs Ban

8

10.25

2

12

3.83

6

3rd T20I vs Ban

8

9

1

12

5.75

2

 

Unlike teams whose victory in the shortest format depends on big hitters at the top, Afghanistan thrives on choking the opposition with spin in the middle overs. In international cricket, this strategy makes sense as pitches across the World have slowed down. Teams capable of milking, forget hitting, spinners have come down to one or two. Four of the biggest teams in cricket - Australia, South Africa, England and New Zealand - don't boast any great batsmen against spin, which makes Afghanistan a threatening team, particularly with this bowling attack.

It might be too early to declare them the favorites in a game against any of these teams, but they have certainly improved their status with the series win against Bangladesh.

 

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