Pakistan and Afghanistan are never known for their batting. If anything, time and again, their batters have nullified their bowlers’ impact but this time, in the ongoing T20 World Cup, it has been a staggering manifestation of what every single fan would have hoped for. After Mohammed Rizwan and Babar Azam did it in the first game against India, Shoiab Malik and Asif Ali stood up big-time against New Zealand to clear Pakistan’s path for the semi-final. Afghanistan, meanwhile, have scored at a run rate of 9.6 and an average of 36.4 to emerge as the best batting side in the competition. In the last five instances where Afghanistan has batted first in T20Is, they have scored over 180 runs in all those matches. Most importantly, in all those matches they haven’t lost more than 5 wickets while winning their first game by a margin of 130 runs.
Looking at such bare numbers, it would be easy to presume that batters hold the key for Friday’s encounter at the Dubai International Stadium. Definitely, they would play a big role, but one can never ignore the bowling fire-power both sides possess to make the contest spicer. Pakistan are a pacer-heavy side, with Shaheen Shah Afridi running riots in almost every game, and Afghanistan have the likes of Rashid Khan, Mohammed Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, and Naveen Ul-Haq to pose an imposing look. Two very different units, with completely different strengths with the seed, will go down the Dubai stairway to dictate terms and decide the course for the group.
Afghanistan’s early intent augurs well
Like we have discussed earlier, Afghanistan are the best batting side in the competition so far. In T20Is this year, the Asian nation have managed to score at a run rate of 9.6, which is the highest RR among batting units, and to go with that, they have the best balls per boundary frequency. Kind of interesting, however, is the fact that the whole batting unit has carried the same approach to give the side more options. All of their batters, who have played at least one innings in T20Is this year, have scored at an SR of 135+ and found a boundary within 6 balls on an average. It is a fantastic achievement to boot.
On top of that, they are quite lucky to have three excellent batters upfront to guide them to a strong position in the powerplay. With Mohammad Shahzad being paired up with Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmanullah Gurbaz has been pushed down to No.3. All three of them are among the top six players with the highest strike rate for Afghanistan and that is a great luxury to possess. If they can negotiate the early proceedings and take on Afridi and Imad Wasim in the powerplay, the result will be pretty interesting.
Pakistan’s Hafeez problem
Babar and Rizwan took care of the run-chase against India, Malik and Ali did their part against the Kiwis. Among all these exploits, it is easy to forget that Mohammed Hafeez, Pakistan’s one of the most bankable T20 players in the last few years, has been on a downward trajectory. His T20I average of 11.7 in the ongoing year is the second-lowest for a top-six batter after Bangladesh’s Liton Das. What has made his case even a difficult one for the Afghanistan encounter are his issues against spinners, against whom he has averaged only 5.6 in T20Is this year, having been dismissed eight times in the process.
In Rashid, Mujeeb, and Nabi, Afghanistan possess three world-class spinners who are quite experienced in bowling in UAE conditions. With 79 and 56 wickets respectively, Rashid and Nabi are among the top three wicket-takers in UAE and it will certainly test Hafeez to the limit. Will Babar resort to the option of Haider Ali for this match and drop the talismanic all-rounder? Well, that is surely an option on the table.
It is kind of the only change that we might see from both the units, who have taken the top two spots on the points table. Afghanistan have the advantage of a massive NRR but anything less than a win will complicate things for them, knowing India and New Zealand are waiting in line. For Pakistan, the motivation couldn't have been anything bigger, knowing a win will virtually seal the spot in the semis. Will the story now take a flip?
Pakistan: Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Babar Azam (c), Fakhar Zaman, Mohammad Hafeez/Haider Ali, Shoaib Malik, Asif Ali, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali, Haris Rauf, Shaheen Afridi
Afghanistan: Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Asghar Afghan, Najibullah Zadran, Mohammad Nabi (c), Gulbadin Naib, Rashid Khan, Karim Janat, Naveen-ul-Haq, Mujeeb Ur Rahman