Afghanistan are like no other team in this competition and to know why, all you need to do is observe proceedings at the toss. Today, their skipper Mohammad Nabi won the toss for the third game running. And for the third time running, he opted to bat first.
Still wondering how it makes them different? Well, to put Nabi’s decision to bat first in context, only once in this Super 12 stage has any other side not opted to chase. That was Bangladesh, and they went on to lose that game (vs England) with more than 30 balls to spare.
There is good reason why teams love to chase: in the night games there is dew, which makes defending targets difficult, and in general, regardless of conditions, teams tend to struggle while batting first owing to not knowing what a par score is. Then there are also occasions when there is spice on the wicket, which tends to give the side bowling first an advantage.
The numbers don’t lie - chasing is a massive advantage. Prior to today, only twice in the Super 12 stage had teams defended a total successfully. At the venue of today’s clash, since the start of the second leg of IPL 2021, only 4 of 15 matches had been won by the team batting first.
But Afghanistan care about none of that. They don’t care about numbers; they don’t care about conventions; they don’t care about match-ups. Most of the time, they don’t even care about venues. They are a team who stick to their strength - which is putting a total on the board and letting the spinners choke opposition batters - and look to maximize their strong areas.
That’s how they obliterated Scotland; that’s how they almost beat Pakistan. That’s how they sealed automatic qualification to the Super 12 stage ahead of teams like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
And today in Abu Dhabi, that is exactly how they put themselves in pole position to make the semi-finals.
Of all the quirky things about this Afghanistan unit that makes them an admirable yet dangerous bunch, what really stands out is the Brobdingnagian self-belief. The sheer faith and self-trust in their ability to get over the line in their own way, paying no heed to any outside noise whatsoever.
On one hand, you can call their decision to keep batting first a rather ill-informed, silly call. Particularly when there is clear statistical evidence that chasing is the better option.
On the other, you can throw conventional logic out of the window, for they are simply exceptional at what they do.
But on a day like today, weighing the two arguments against each other, it is easy to come to the conclusion why this is a side that should just be allowed to do it’s thing.
When Afghanistan walked in to bat today, their batters knew that their task was cut out. Of all the venues in the Super 12 stage, the Sheikh Zayed Stadium had proven to be the toughest wicket for sides batting first. Prior to today, the highest first innings score posted at the venue in this World Cup was 124 by Bangladesh, against England.
And they were up against a quality Namibian bowling unit who’d played three of their four T20 World Cup 2021 games in Abu Dhabi. Namibia and their sea of left-arm seamers knew the ins and outs of this Abu Dhabi wicket.
But as if they didn’t get the memo from the other sides, as if they hadn’t watched any game that’d previously taken place at the venue, the Afghan batters just went and did Afghanistan things. They posted 160/5, the third highest batting-first total of the Super 12 stage of this T20 World Cup and the highest at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium.
Crazily enough, it wasn’t even one of their better batting performances. No batter, including the two openers, found fluency, and it was only the late onslaught from skipper Nabi that propelled them to a total that was daunting for Namibia. The point, though, is: they still found a way.
And once Afghanistan put runs on the board, there was never going to be any question, ever, of who was going to emerge victorious - even though they did not have the services of Mujeeb, who missed the game due to injury. It was a bowling performance as clinical as the one against Scotland, and this time they didn’t even have to rely on their spinners.
Astonishingly, the seamers accounted for all but one of the wickets to fall, and the quicks put on a 101 on how to bowl on a two-paced wicket. The stars of the evening were Gulbadin Naib - who didn’t bowl in the first two games - and Hamid Hassan - who’d last played a T20I in 2016 - and through their contrasting approaches, the two seamers ravaged Namibia.
While Gulbadin kept taking pace off the ball, bowled on a good length and exploited the wicket to perfection, Hamid was full of aggression, nailing one yorker after another at 140 clicks. No less effective was Naveen, who set-up the demolition by dismissing both the openers. Namibia had no answers whatsoever.
Afghanistan are now second in the table, with a Net Run Rate that most teams can only dream of. Regardless of what happens in the clash at Dubai tonight, both India and New Zealand will need to be on high alert.
For this unit led by Nabi will throw everything at them, and do so in their own outlandish fashion. And if their first three matches are anything to go by, then nothing but perfection can stop this juggernaut.