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One-of-a-kind Omarzai rallies the Afghan dream

Last updated on 30 Oct 2023 | 09:00 PM
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One-of-a-kind Omarzai rallies the Afghan dream

Is Azmatullah Omarzai a dream player for every team right now?

All teams desperately need an Azmatullah Omarzai right now. He is the only pace bowling all-rounder who is 1) in form, 2) contributing in both facets and 3) fit to take the field. No other team can boast a player like him in this World Cup at this moment. 

India have Hardik Pandya out injured. The same is the case with Marcus Stoinis for Australia. Cameron Green lost his place to Travis Head in their last game. Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh either don't have one in the squad or do not have one who is competent enough for the first XI. For England, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran have mirrored their team’s horror campaign. Bas de Leede has slipped off after a decent start. James Neesham is averaging close to 150 with the ball since 2022.

So yeah, we mean it when we say Azmatullah Omarzai is one-of-a-kind. 

Before the World Cup began, Afghanistan had serious question marks on two fronts. One was to ensure that their middle-order had enough firepower to compete for par, if not above par, scores. And two, the ability of their pacers to ensure that the work done by their spinners wasn't undone.

Both these threats were real. The two Afghan batters at three and four - Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi - have a career List-A strike rate of under 75. And their pacers collectively had the third-lowest economy (5.9) and the second-worst bowling average (34) among all the participating nations since 2021.

Rahmat and Hashmat have pushed their limits. Especially when they are chasing. With a target behind their back, the strike rate for the duo has touched nearly 80. This number is under 70 for both while batting first. Both are averaging a whopping 87.5 and 114 while chasing, respectively.

But, Omarzai has been the batter to strike at 90+ irrespective of when his team are batting. The only other Afghan player to possess this kind of striking ability is, of course, Rahmanullah Gurbaz. He, however, has been averaging 25.3 while chasing as opposed to 49.3 while batting first. For Omarzai, this number is a respectable 34.3 while batting first and a not out-inflated 100 while chasing.

In their game against Sri Lanka in Pune, Afghanistan were favourites to chase down a modest 242. The wicket looked good for batting, and Sri Lanka yet again had to juggle their attack up due to injuries. But then again, Sri Lanka, like Afghanistan, proved to be giant killers in just their previous games. They sent tremors down the Afghan camp when the leading left-arm pacer in the tournament, Dilshan Madushanka, cleaned Gurbaz up within the first over. 

Though Rahmat, with Ibrahim Zadran first, and Hashmat later steadied the ship. But, when Rahmat was dismissed, Afghanistan still needed 111 of 22 overs. A target easy by modern-day standards but tricky for a team with a history of not closing games off. And they were perhaps staring at a longer tail too, given the wicketkeeper-batter Ikram Alikhil suffered a finger injury in the second over of the first innings and did not take further part in it. 

In their innings, Sri Lanka hit 19 fours and two sixes. By the end of the chase, Afghanistan hit as many fours but three more sixes. All three were the first three boundaries Omarzai hit. Omarzai has possessed six hitting abilities right from his U-19 days. In the 2018 U-19 World Cup, he hit eight sixes in four games, which were the second-best after Fabian Allen, who hit nine. He is the only player along with Daryl Mitchell, to hit both Kuldeep Yadav and Ravindra Jadeja for sixes in this World Cup. Coincidentally, both have hit three sixes off Kuldeep and one off Jadeja.

Displaying a complete range against Sri Lanka, Omarzai hit the first six towards the longer leg side boundary to Maheesh Theekshana. Second an uppercut to Dushmatha Chameera, and third a hook to Madushanka. All three in the space of four overs, closing doors on any Sri Lankan hopes. He hit six of the next seven boundaries to take his team home with 28 balls to spare. The end, however, was a bit anti-climactic as in an attempt for a glory shot, Omarzai found the fielder at deep square only for him to spill the catch and allow the winning run. 

“He's so chuffed to be able to hit the winning runs for Afghanistan. Would have been nice if it wasn't a chance, but I'll be mentioning that to him later. But I thought of the way that he played, and a natural striker of the cricket ball, I haven't seen many better,"  Afghanistan’s batting coach Jonathan Trott said about Omarzai post the game. 

Omarzai’s contribution with the bat was after he played a handy role with the ball on a day that saw Fazlhaq Farooqi provide Afghanistan with a selection headache through a four-fer. And, Mujeeb ur Rahman, once again, making avid Afghan cricket fans wonder why isn't a larger proportion of his overs reserved for overs 11-40.

Before Farooqi and Mujeeb sunk the Lankan ship, it was Omarzai who denied Pathum Nissanka a chance to be remembered alongside Steve Smith and Virat Kohli as the only batters to hit five consecutive 50+ scores in World Cups. 

Afghan pacers have collectively underperformed as a unit, with an economy of 6.6, the worst in the tournament. And a bowling average of 38.9, only better than Bangladesh (48.3) and England (40.2), the bottom two sides in the competition. However, in overs 11-40, their economy is better than six teams, and their bowling average is better than four other teams. Overs 11-40 is a phase where Omarzai has picked all of his five wickets so far.

A question, however, still remains unanswered. Being predominantly a swing bowler with a wrist position that has gotten everyone’s attention after Sachin Tendulkar noticed it, can Omarzai be tried with the new ball? It is a phase where he has had the most success in T20 leagues around the globe. It will also allow Afghanistan to use Mujeeb more in the middle-overs. 

Trott mentioned post-game that they did want to try Omarzai with the new ball in an earlier game, and that option is still ON. For now, he is just happy that he is in their side. 

Well, with the one-of-a-kind talent and flexibility that Omarzai brings to a side, who wouldn't be?

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