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Afghanistan can bow out with a smile


Afghanistan_ODI_T20I_CricketIt is unfortunate that Afghanistan are out of the Asia Cup after losing just two games - both of them in pretty close encounters that could have gone either way until the final over. But that is how multi-team tournaments work. One bad match and you can end up scolding your bad luck on the way back to the airport. For a team that hasn't participated in too many of these tournaments, this is a learning curve and a steep one at that.

Afghanistan started the tournament as perhaps the fifth best team out of six. In a group which had Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well, they were expected to exit earlier. Instead, the impressively talented side won both their group games and topped the group, much to the dismay of the eliminated Lankans.

People have gotten accustomed to Afghanistan pulling off wins here and there. Most of the time the catalyst has been the bowling, now spearheaded by superheroes Rashid Khan and Mujeeb-ur-Rahman. The duo was exceptional in the Asia Cup too, but it wasn't a one-gun attack that faced their opponents, as was often the case before.

Instead, their batsmen, often ridiculed for not backing up the bowlers, stepped up and offered strong support. In the opening game against Sri Lanka, on a slow surface, they posted a competitive 249, courtesy a 72 from Rahmat Shah, one of their most consistent batsmen in 2018. Against Bangladesh, they dispelled the notion that the previous game was a fluke and notched up 255 before bundling out the hapless Tigers for 119.

In their first Super Four match, Pakistan posed them tougher questions, but a well-oiled Afghanistan batting line-up racked up 257, a score which seemed very defendable until Shoaib Malik's Dhoni-like calmness wore them down. Against Bangladesh, in a must-win Super Four game, they once again scored well, giving a stiff challenge in a run chase of 250, and falling short by just three runs in the end. Finally, against India, in a virtual dead rubber, they made 252 and tied the game to go out on a high note.

Batting-wise, the Afghanistan unit has improved by leaps and bounds. If there is one major takeaway for them from the Asia Cup, it is that if they can bat well and post competitive totals, their bowling more often than not can choke their opponents.

Phil Simmons, the Afghanistan head coach, had commented in March this year on how he was looking to make the side a better batting unit.

“It was my decision [to elect to bat in the warm-up against Netherlands]. I just wanted to bat first because in the last three matches in Sharjah, we fielded first. So I just wanted a little change, so that we get accustomed to doing both. Now that we have done both, we understand what needs to be done depending on whether we bat or field first.”


“As far as the batsmen are considered, I have asked everyone to focus on his own strengths. If my strength is to hit the ball over the top, that is what I must do; if my strength is accumulating and sweeping and reverse-sweeping, I must use that to my advantage. Each of us has a strength and we must use that during the match - that is my message. Everybody needs to be themselves because it is something about your play that brought you to the international level and made you successful, so you have to continue improving on that strength. Everybody can't play like Kohli. Everybody can't play like a Viv Richards,” said the head coach.


Simmons might have a point there. The freedom to stick to one's natural game is showing in the influential rise of the likes of Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi and opener Ihsanullah. Shahidi averages 70.60 in 7 ODIs this year with four scores of 50 or more.

Najibullah Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Ihsanullah and Rahmat have also racked up decent numbers. Mohammad Shahzad, known for his 'live by the sword and die by the sword’ approach has also had good returns with more controlled aggression.

Perhaps what holds them back is the lack of centuries from their top-order. Only one player, Rahmat Shah, has a century to his name this year. Without anyone scoring big, a collective effort is almost always the need of the hour. This is a strategy prone to fail, although a more than potent bowling attack covers for some of the mishaps.

With renewed vigour in batting and a reasonably successful Asia Cup, Afghanistan are turning into a real force to reckon with before the 10-team World Cup. Simmons, whose work has been outstanding in this time for the sub-continental side, will be a key figure as they build towards their World Cup campaign.


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