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Plenty of positives & same old mistakes in Afghanistan's memorable World Cup

Last updated on 11 Nov 2023 | 02:56 AM
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Plenty of positives & same old mistakes in Afghanistan's memorable World Cup

The highlight of the 2023 World Cup, Afghanistan leave the tournament with their head high despite no semifinal qualification

We all love underdog stories. India winning the World Cup in 1983. Sri Lanka in 1996. Kenya making it to the semi-finals in 2003 are a few examples. It warmed our hearts when New Zealand punched above their weight in every World Cup, the second favorite team of every cricket fan after their own, majorly owing to how the Kiwis maximize results with fewer resources at their disposal. 

However, New Zealand have raised their status from ‘dark horses’ to being a title contender over the last few years. In the absence of their representation, Afghanistan provided the underdog narrative to this showpiece event. 

They have been the highlight of this World Cup. In a tournament loaded with one-sided games, they added the charm of old-school ODI cricket which makes the format great in the first place - slowing things down in the middle overs. 

Afghanistan managed only one win in their first two World Cup campaigns - 2015 and 2019. In 2023 alone, they won four matches while giving in-from sides like Australia and South Africa a run for their money.  

The hopes for a semi-final seemed unrealistic but it took an innings of a lifetime from Glenn Maxwell to suppress those chances. Their streak of three wins in the second half of the tournament established a three-way tussle between with New Zealand and Pakistan for the fourth semi-final spot. 

In what has been a pretty straightforward World Cup, it is their brilliance that has made the World Cup do World Cup things in the last week of the round-robin stage. And they showcased both their strengths and shortcomings to do that.

When we say they added ODI cricket’s old-school vibe to this World Cup, we mean that they slowed things down in the middle overs -  both with the ball and the bat. 

As things stand at the end of their final league game, against South Africa in Match 42, they have the second-best economy rate in the competition - 5.4. The 11 - 40 overs phase has been their best with the spinners taking effect. Again, separating India - a relentless bowling machine in every department - Afghanistan spinners have the best economy rate among eight other spin attacks. 

The Afghan spinners outbowled their counterparts in victories against Pakistan and Sri Lanka, keeping the target well within the range of their restricted batting. Against England, the trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, and Mohammad Nabi snapped 8/104 in total. 

The batters also stuck together. They planned their run chases in 10-over blocks, as was seen on a whiteboard in Afghanistan’s dugout during their run chase against Sri Lanka. 

Afghanistan's top seven’s batting average of 39.7 is fifth on the table and ahead of Australia’s 37.4. In Ibrahim Zadran, they found their first centurion in their World Cup history. In Azmatullah Omarzai, they have discovered their seam-bowling all-rounder, a liberty many leading Test-playing nations don’t possess. He scored 353 runs with three fifties, averaging 70.6 at a strike rate of 97.8. With the ball, he bagged seven wickets, picking timely scalps in the middle overs but more importantly, showing the expertise to strike with the new ball in helpful conditions. 

Overall, it has been a team effort. Zadran is their only player in the list of top 10 run-scorers in the tournament, placed 10th with 376 runs. Their highest wicket-taker, Rashid Khan, is placed 19th on the overall tally. 

But Afghanistan’s strengths and shortcomings are blended together. While their spinners were economical, they still averaged 37.3 runs/wicket, only the sixth-best. Barring the middle overs, their bowling average was in the lower half of the table in four other metrics - pace bowling, spin bowling, powerplay, and death overs. In matches where the spinners picked less than four wickets, Afghanistan lost. 

In pace attack, they lack variety in terms of pace. Amidst the 132 overs of pace that Afghanistan bowled, only four deliveries crossed the 140 kph barrier. Going forward, generating a penetrative pace bowler should be among Afghanistan’s top priorities.

The scoring rate with the bat has a long-time reset pending. Their run chases against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands were clinical, but Afghanistan were always at risk of losing momentum in the middle overs. They have had the third-lowest strike rate in this phase, with a considerable distance. The skipper, Hashmatullah Shahidi has a strike rate of 52.7 in the first 20 balls of the innings in the tournament. 

Most of all, they need to learn to close out games. No international team has borne the brunt of dropped catches as much as Afghanistan. Facing New Zealand, they dropped three catches. However, the one drop that will haunt them for ages is Mujeeb grassing a sitter at the Wankhede Stadium against Australia. Who knows Afghanistan would still be alive in the tournament if that catch was taken. 

In the same match, their cricketing brains came to a standstill while bowling to Maxwell. Batting on one leg for the last quarter of his innings, the Australian all-rounder smashed 59 runs off his last 29 deliveries. The Afghanistan bowlers kept bowling to him close to his body, making it easier for Maxwell to score without any footwork. 

When they needed to bowl wide and slow to Maxwell, they served it in his arc. Only one of the 29 deliveries Maxwell faced post the 40th over was attempted wide of his body. That too, bowled at 110 kph by Mujeeb, was clobbered for four. All these are mistakes that have been ingrained in Afghanistan’s culture and need to be ironed out to prevent further heartbreaks. Not long ago, during the Asia Cup, they were standing at the cusp of a Super Four qualification but, were unaware of their chances. 

They will now fly back home with probably their biggest ‘what if’ at this level - were they only Maxwell’s wicket away from a dream semi-final qualification? 

“So near and yet so far,” is the phrase that will resonate with Afghanistan’s 2023 World Cup campaign. In a consolation prize, they have secured a spot for the 2025 Champions Trophy. The announcement about the qualification of the top seven teams in the World Cup 2023 along with the host nation Pakistan surprised many. But in one of its few upsides, it granted Afghanistan some solace for their efforts. 

There is a lot to like about where Afghanistan cricket is headed under Jonathan Trott who took over the side as head coach in August last year. But if they can stop marring their moments of brilliance with shoddy basics, they will also travel those missing extra steps as quickly as they traveled the steps between playing their first ODI in 2009 to almost making the World Cup semis in 2023. 

* All stats till Match 42

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