Both Afghanistan and New Zealand are coming off well-fought games in their previous encounters, but with different results. New Zealand limped past the finish line after being tested by the Bangladeshi bowlers. On the other hand, Afghanistan tested Sri Lanka to their core but succumbed to a 34-run defeat.
The margin might not reflect the impact the Afghan bowlers had on the game, but they kept Sri Lanka under the pump for major parts of the truncated game.
The Afghans and Kiwis have faced each other only once before, in the 2015 World Cup, when the Kiwis registered an easy 6-wicket victory with 83 balls to spare. But Afghanistan is no more the pushover they were four years ago, and will be itching to test another Test-playing nation, at a ground where ODI cricket was last played when their team did not even have international recognition (in 1999).
To push the Kiwis, Afghanistan will rely on the spinners, who do bulk of the bowling even in the last phase of the innings.
The Afghans have picked 167 wickets with their spinners against only 73 by the pacers. Even against Sri Lanka, it was the spinners, particularly Mohammed Nabi, who triggered a collapse after Kusal Perera had got off to a flier.
Unlike the Lankans, the Kiwis have a pool of batsmen who can counter spin. Right-handers Martin Guptill (65.6), Kane Williamson (41.7) and Ross Taylor (80.1) boast of hefty batting average against spinners in ODIs since 2018.
The weak underbelly is the left-handers: Colin Munro (17.2), Tom Latham (27.5) and James Neesham (27.5) have failed to play in their free-flowing style against spinners in the period under review.
The struggles of these southpaws will encourage Mohammad Nabi who, in common with quality off-spinners, is at his best against left-handed batsmen.
The Afghans will also have noted Kane Williamson’s inexplicable dip in form against spinners this year. The Black Caps skipper has faced spin in eight of 11 innings he has played this year, and succumbed six times.
This will put the onus on Guptill and Taylor to negate Afghan’s spin threat.
New Zealand on the other hand will look to attack with pace. The Afghan batsmen, who were exposed against the Sri Lankan pacers, average a mere 28.1 against pace bowling since 2018, the second worst amongst all participating sides.
If the Afghan batsmen wilt against pace, the Kiwi quicks are in full bloom, having taken 154 wickets since 2018 - the second most by a side. Trent Boult has been the leader of the pack with 46 scalps to his name - the most by any pace bowler in international cricket during this period. The left-arm seamer has picked up just three wickets this World Cup, but the Kiwis have taken 17 wickets with pace in only two games, which underlines that the Afghans will have no relief – if Boult doesn’t get them, Lockie Ferguson or Matt Henry will.
The threat of being blown away by pace makes Rahmat Shah and Najibullah Zadran important cogs in Afghanistan’s batting wheel. Not only are they amongst Afghanistan’s top five batsmen since the previous World Cup, they are also the only two batsmen with averages in the 40s while facing pace (Rahmat Shah 46.9, Najibullah Zadran 41.4).
Playing at different ends of the batting order, Shah’s role would be to stabilise the innings at the top while Najibullah will have to press the accelerator down the order. Their strike rates against pace also reflect their respective roles - Shah 66, and Zadran 99.2.
Gulbadin Naib (c), Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran, Ikram Ali Khil (wk), Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman
After two wins in two games, New Zealand is not expected to tinker with the winning combination.
Martin Guptill, Colin Munro, Kane Williamson (c), Ross Taylor, Tom Latham (wk), James Neesham, Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, Matt Henry, Lockie ferguson, Trent Boult