These are strange circumstances to begin a rivalry between two Test playing nations. It is a World Cup game, the last of the league stage for both sides. It is a virtual quarterfinal. But not for only these two teams but a non-participating third side as well who have their campaign resting on the outcome of this match.
New Zealand and Afghanistan will lock horns for the first time in a T20I in Match 40 of the 2021 T20 World Cup, in Abu Dhabi. A win for the Kiwis will see them through to the semi-finals. A defeat will knock them out in all certainty on the net run-rate front and clear the path for Afghanistan and India. One of the two Asian countries will then be in contention to proceed further, depending on the result in the last Super 12 game, between India and Namibia. Strange circumstances to write the first chapter of the New Zealand-Afghanistan T20I rivalry, right? With Pakistan, England and Australia through to the knockouts, this game can seal the four semi-finalists.
Ravichandran Ashwin showed a clear support to Afghanistan, jokingly saying the Indian team is ready to lend Afghanistan their physio to get Mujeeb Ur Rahman fit. Being an emerging team, an Afghanistan victory cannot be ruled out of picture. However, in a World Cup that is heavily dependent on conditions, the venue for the contest, Abu Dhabi, brightens the chances for the Kiwis.
Afghanistan's match-up against the venue and the Kiwis
A symbolic factor in Afghanistan’s quick rise at the international level has been their spinners. They have constantly thumped sides weak in playing spin. New Zealand presents a different challenge.
They average the fourth-best (27.8) amongst Test playing nations in playing spin in T20Is since 2020, behind England, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their strike-rate is on the lower end (121.7) but is clustered with other renowned sides of spin bowling. The core of their batting has been unbothered by spin. Glenn Phillips (194), Devon Conway (45.3), Martin Guptill (42) and Kane Williamson (32.4) have batting averages ranging from decent to excellent while facing spin.
On top of it, Abu Dhabi has been the least conducive track for spinners. The slow bowlers have averaged 25.8 in Abu Dhabi this World Cup, 5 runs per wicket more than any other venue. Afghanistan spinners have themselves suffered in the two matches they have played at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, picking only one wicket.
They have missed Mujeeb’s services in both these games but the massive difference in numbers tells the tale. However, the fact that its a day game might work slightly in their favor. Rashid Khan will be the player to watch out for Afghanistan, and India.
New Zealand have had steady starts in each of the four games they have played so far. Martin Guptill has played a pivotal part in that. After a tough year in 2020 where he averaged only 18.5, the right-hander has returned with an improved version of himself. This year, Guptill averages 38.8 in 12 innings, striking at 149.9.
Guptill’s rich returns against spin have paved the way to his return to form. Known to be weak against spin, the opener averages 48 against spin this year. Moreover, his strike-rate is as high as 153.6. It is in fact the second highest among all batters with 100 runs or more this year (from top 10 ranked T20I sides). Thus, Guptill must be pretty confident about negotiating the Afghan spinners in this battle.
Unstoppable force versus immovable object
Afghanistan have batted with irrevocable intent this World Cup. They have an average run-rate of 8.4 in the powerplays, the second highest among all Super 12 teams and 11.2 at the death, the third highest on the same criteria. They will now face the New Zealand pacers in these two phases, who have been the most economical pace bowling unit in the competition, going at 6.4 runs per over.
The likes of Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Shahzad and Rahmanullah Gurbaz followed by Gulbadin Naib, Mohammad Nabi and Karim Janat against Kiwi pacers presents a mouth-watering contest.
The Blackcaps are expected to go with an unchanged XI.
Martin Guptill, Daryl Mitchell, Kane Williamson (c), Devon Conway (wk), Glenn Phillips, James Neesham, Mitchell Santner, Tim Southee, Ish Sodhi, Adam Milne, Trent Boult
Mujeeb Ur Rahman is ‘back to gym’ as he captioned in his Instagram post. He should take the field on the Sunday afternoon, replacing the left-arm spinner Sharafuddin Ashraf. His presence will bolster Afghanistan’s spin attack further which already has Rashid and Nabi.
Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Najibullah Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Mohammad Nabi (c), Karim Janat, Rashid Khan, Naveen-Ul-Haq, Hamid Hassan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman