Ever since Pakistan, vilified after the defeat against India, strung together back to back victories against the Proteas and the until then undefeated Black Caps, social media has been lit with parallels between this campaign and the legendary “cornered tigers” campaign of 1992.
The excitement among the Twitterati is not entirely misplaced – the two wins, coupled with the shock one earlier against England, has given Pakistan a viable opportunity to make the last four.
*As on June 25 2019, after the conclusion of England vs Australia, Match 32
That is why this fixture against Afghanistan is critical – a win gives Pakistan 9 points out of eight games. Their last fixture is against Bangladesh, currently level with Pakistan on 7 points from as many games, could well see either of the two sides progressing into the last four, if a few results in matches involving the other top teams go their way. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is currently bottom of the table without a single point to their name; they play with nothing to lose, and such sides can be dangerous as spoilers.
Pakistan’s biggest problem is that the opening duo of Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman have not been able to see off the new ball. In seven innings thus far, the opening partnership has lasted for less than three overs – and on two occasions Pakistan lost. The openers have added 35 runs on average for the 1st wicket; the trendline shows that when the openers add 50-plus, and lasted 14 overs or more, Pakistan goes on to win over 90 per cent of the time.
An early wicket puts Pakistan under the sort of pressure Afghanistan’s plethora of spinners are ideally suited to exploit – and thus far in this World Cup, Pakistan’s record against spin is nothing to boast of. Mujeeb, in particular, has been deadly against left-handers, taking a southpaw wicket once every 37 balls compared to a wicket every 51 balls against right-handers.
Pakistan’s trump card is Babar Azam, ranked number 8 in the ICC ODI rankings and the perfect successor to Younis Khan, though his batting is more reminiscent of the batsman formerly known as Yousuf Youhanna. Azam’s ability to build an innings has been immense for his team, as witness his unbeaten, eventually match-winning, knock of 101 off 127 ball against New Zealand on June 26. Having amassed 333 runs thus far, he tops Pakistan batting chart, followed by Mohammad Hafeez though the latter tends to throw his wicket away particularly against part-timers like Aaron Finch, Aiden Markram and Kane Williamson.
After Shoaib Malik was ousted for underperformance, Pakistan’s replacement number 5 Haris Sohail seems to be enjoying the finisher’s role. Sohail has already scored 165 in three innings, which includes a match winning 89 of 59 balls against South Africa, and a calm and composed innings of 68 against New Zealand.
As far as the bowling goes, Mohammed Amir was soldiering on without support till the recent New Zealand game, but then Pakistan found a surprise weapon in the teenaged Shaheen Shah Afridi, whose match figures of 3/28 is the second best for a Pakistan bowler in this World Cup.
The key to Afridi’s performance was that In his entire spell, he bowled 50% of his deliveries in the good length area, allowing for movement in the air and off the wicket. That makes him almost unplayable, as his economy rate of 1.7 RPO while bowling full in the channel shows. In a game where Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz looked off color, Afridi spearheaded the attack with his wickets including Colin Munro, Ross Taylor and Tom Latham.
Afghanistan lacks fire power in the top order
None of the batsmen in the Afghanistan top 5 have a strike rate of above 80; when they are at the crease, the dot balls keep piling up, creating pressure for themselves and their partners. They play out 64.4% dot balls, the worst performance by any team in this Cup.
In their previous match against Bangladesh, skipper Gulbadin Naib consumed 75 balls to score 47. Hasmatullah Shahidi, Rahmat Shah and Ashgar Afghan used up 104 balls to score just 54.
Their best player is Najibullah Zadran, currently wasted at number 6. In 2019, Zadran has scored 350 runs in 12 innings with an average of 43.4. In ODIs, batting at number 6, he has a strike rate of 101, the best for any Afghan batsmen. Apart from that, he is a fast starter against both pace and spin. Moving him up the order is a logical move for Afghanistan to make.
Not the best of Rashid Khan
In this World Cup Rashid Khan, who at a young age has already attained iconic status, has taken just 4 wickets in 6 matches. He not only has the worst economy rate (6.1) but also the worst strike (77.8) among bowlers who have bowled a minimum of 300 balls. Khan came into the tournament on the back of a very good 2018, but he is having a bad year and a key reason is that his main weapon, the googly, is no longer the surprise it used to be – and overuse is a critical reason.
Afghanistan needs Rashid Khan back in prime form if they are to boss the crucial middle overs; currently, his lack of penetration ends up easing the pressure created by Mohammad Nabi and others.
The back end of the league phase has seen the tournament come alive with fighting performances, upsets galore, and a seemingly sure top of the table in disarray. The Pakistan/Afghanistan game could well prove another nail-biter – one team needs the win, the other will play for pride and glory, and that is always an incendiary match-up.
Pakistan have finally found their mojo. They are unlikely to make any change in the playing XI
Fakhar Zaman, Imam-Ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Mohammad Hafeez, Haris Sohail, Sarfaraz Ahmed (c& wk), Imad wasim, Shadab Khan, Wahab Riaz, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Amir
Afghanaistan have nothing to lose so they too are likely to field the same XI
Rahmat Shah, Gulbadin Naib (c), Hashmatullah Shahidi, Asghar Afghan, Shamiullah Shinwari, Najibullah Zadran, Ikram Ali-Khil (wk), Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran, Mujeeb Ur-Rahman