From playing ICC World Cricket League Division Five in 2008 to making their World Cup debut in 2015, Afghanistan’s rise leaving their gruesome past behind to reach the cricketing firmament has been a fascinating story. After the World Cup in 2015, they gained the Test status in 2017 and a year later, booked a spot in the 10-team 2019 World Cup which was yet another testimony of their elevation.
They have reached certain heights in a very limited time to make themselves a relevant part of international cricket. Now they are striving to stay relevant for which they need to keep playing the top nations on a regular basis, irrespective of the result.
Afghanistan played 63 ODIs between 2015 and 2019 World Cup out of which 50 came against the smaller cricketing nations - Zimbabwe, Ireland, Scotland, Hong Kong and UAE. 48 of those were played in the seemingly similar conditions - the Indian sub-continent and Zimbabwe.
The only time Afghanistan play major Test-playing nations one after the other is in ICC tournaments. In fact, their previous game against South Africa was their first ever encounter against the Proteas, coming a decade after they attained the ODI status.
The lack of fixtures against the top nations and in conditions taking them out of their comfort zone have stifled Afghanistan’s progress to a point. When their bowlers, Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman have gained international recognition featuring in almost every T20 league around the globe, their batsmen have not received the same exposure, with Mohammad Nabi being the only prominent name in T20 circuit.
Consequently, they have been exposed in this World Cup, especially their batsmen who have not been able to cope up with the seaming conditions in England. They have failed to show up as a batting unit in this tournament. Statistically and quite literally, they are the worst batting side on paper this World Cup.
Their run-rate - 4.5, batting average - 16.4 runs per wicket and dismissal-rate - 21.9 are the least amongst the 10 sides. Moreover, they have been bowled out in each of their four games so far, that too inside 40 overs - 38.2 against Australia, 32.4 against Sri Lanka, 32.1 against New Zealand and 34.1 against South Africa.
Their middle-order has been the biggest cause of concern, performing better only than Sri Lanka in terms of batting average. England on the other hand, is miles ahead.
As discussed earlier, the Afghan batsmen have been exposed batting in alien conditions of England. Being bowled out in four games, they have lost 33 wickets to pace, averaging a mere 15.6 runs per wicket.
Rahmat Shah’s missing form has left a big hole in Afghanistan’s middle-order. He has been the country’s most prolific run-scorer since last World Cup - scoring 1,080 runs. Approximately, 53% of those runs have come against the pace bowlers. He started the tournament in a solid fashion scoring 43 against Australia under sunny conditions. But in the last three games, when Afghanistan has batted under cloud cover, he registered scores of 2, 0 and 6 - epitomizing the failure of Afghan batsmen when the pitch has something to offer to the fast bowlers.
England, who has been relentless leaving no stone unturned in the tournament will aim to feast on Afghanistan’s weakness with a potent fast bowling attack which has picked wickets at an average of 23.1 - the second best amongst all sides.
Meanwhile, the Afghan pacers have hardly left an imprint in this tournament - eight wickets at an average of 48.7. For Afghanistan, it will again be about how their spinners fare on the given day. But the record of the English batsmen against spin doesn’t give them much confidence either as five of their batsmen have averaged in excess of 50 against the spinners since the 2015 World Cup.
Evidently, the vast gap in various facets of the game between the two sides constitutes the contest as the biggest mismatch of the tournament so far, in a World Cup which ICC had purposely cut down to 10 teams to avoid one-sided contests. Talk about irony. But as always, Afghanistan will take the field with the same fighting spirit that they have shown to ascend themselves to new heights.
In a strange move, Afghanistan opted to drop one of their biggest batting stars, Najibullah Zadran (an average of 47.4 since the 2015 World Cup) to fit Asghar Afghan in the side who was dismissed for a duck. After another batting collapse in the previous game, they would want to bring him back but the question is - whom should he replace?
Also, Manchester aided the spinners more than the fast bowlers in the India-Pakistan encounter which may encourage the skipper, Gulbadin Naib to welcome Mujeeb Ur Rahman in the XI again.
Hazratullah Zazai, Noor Ali Zadran, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran, Gulbadin Naib (c), Ikram Alikhil (wk), Rashid Khan, Hamid Hassan/Aftab Alam, Mujeeb Ur Rahman
England suffered a couple of injury blows in their last game. Jason Roy is out for two games but the question mark remains on skipper, Eoin Morgan. Given this is one of the easier games for them, the host nation can replace Morgan with Moeen Ali and hand the leadership duties to Jos Buttler.
James Vince, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler (c/wk), Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood