It was a historic day in Afghanistan’s cricket history. Playing fifth-division cricket only 13 years ago in 2006, the nation known for its troublesome past has progressed to play cricket at the highest level facing the best of cricket nations around the globe. Making its ODI debut in 2009 and by the virtue of playing the World Cup in 2015, Afghanistan had locked horns with every Test playing nation except South Africa. Their fixture with the Proteas on June 15 meant they ticked that last box.
For South Africa, their contest seemed to be more with the rain Gods in the first couple of hours, as it has been in virtually every World Cup, than the Afghans. Going winless in the first four games, this was the best chance for the Faf du Plessis-led side to get their first victory as having washed out game would have had their campaign on a knife’s edge.
Du Plessis won the toss, elected to bowl and for the first time in this tournament, his fast bowlers seemed to have justified his decision. It was evident from the first ball of the game, when Kagiso Rabada cut Hazratullah Zazai in half with an imperious delivery which the batsman played without any feet movement.
It was pretty much the tale of the first six overs. Both Rabada and Beuran Hendricks exploited the conditions, moving the ball laterally and gaining decent bounce off the pitch. Zazai was adamant on playing the ball with his feet stuck to the ground and the makeshift opener, Noor Ali Zadran was not comfortable either but the first wicket kept eluding the Proteas.
There were plays and misses, outside edges bouncing in no-man’s land, inside edges going onto the pads instead of hitting the stumps and some boundaries on a few occasions when both the bowlers missed their marks.
Up until the first rain break, the openers managed to stay unseparated with the scoreboard reading 33 for no loss in 5.5 overs making the Proteas anxious despite looking dominant over their opponents.
But it was a passing shower and Zazai did not stay long after the resumption. He finally found Rassie van der Dussen at deep midwicket attempting one of his hoicks over the leg-side off Kagiso Rabada in the ninth over.
His departure brought Rahmat Shah to the crease, Afghanistan’s highest run-scorer in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup (1,074 runs prior to this game). But in the seaming conditions, completely different to the ones in which he has grown up batting, he was tested by the follow-up bowlers, Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris, and Rahmat’s short vigil ended in 16th over with six runs against his name off 22 balls. A second rain interruption, a longer one, followed with Afghanistan’s score reading 69 for 2 in 20 overs.
The game resumed with the match being cut short to 48-overs per side but South Africa were determined to wrap up things quickly before another rain interruption. Pheklukwayo removed Hashmatullah Shahidi in the first over after resumption. Imran Tahir, who was seen rolling his arm over when the covers were being taken off started his spell with two wickets in his first over of the day ending the struggle of Noor Ali Zadran and sending back the comeback man - Asghar Afghan.
By the end of the 26th over, Afghanistan were reduced to 78/7 with Mohammad Nabi and Gulbadin Naib back in the hut as well. After struggling to cope with the seaming ball before the second rain delay, they collapsed to Tahir’s web of spin giving him three wickets for only four runs in his first three overs.
Rashid Khan tried to stick around but once Ikram Alikhil got out after a brief partnership of 34 runs, he had no option but to swing his bat around. In an intriguing battle between him and his fellow leg-spinner, Tahir, Rashid collected 14 runs off the first four balls with three boundaries but was eventually caught at the deep mid-wicket boundary.
Morris completed the formalities by dismissing Hamid Hassan and Afghanistan was bowled out for a paltry 125 in 34.1 overs. The DLS method adjusted South Africa’s target to 127.
The low target gave the seemingly out of form, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock time to get their eye in. The sun was out as well which meant the Proteas were in no hurry. Hashim Amla in particular took his time shouldering his arms to anything that was bowled on the testing fourth stump line.
After eight tight overs by Aftab Alam and Hamid Hassan where only 25 runs were conceded but without any success. Rashid Khan was given the ball to provide with the much needed breakthrough. However, he started in complete contrast with Tahir delivering a harmless short ball to de Kock who graciously obliged the gift collecting an easy boundary through midwicket.
As the innings built on, de Kock started to pick up pace, however, Amla struggled but refused to throw his wicket away like he had in the earlier games of the tournament. When the Proteas were eyeing a 10-wicket victory to boost their confidence, de Kock was caught by Mohammad Nabi at mid-wicket against the run of play.
Unperturbed by circumstances in the game, Andile Phehlukwayo walked out to bat at three taking South Africa home with nine wickets and as much as 116 balls in hand.
Amla laboured his way to an unbeaten 41 off 83 balls which is a testimony of the struggles of a free-flowing strokemaker like him who holds the record of being the fastest to score 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 ODI runs.
In the end, the tournament finally witnessed some happy faces in the South African dressing room. The smiles have evaded them since the first over of the World Cup when Tahir dismissed Jonny Bairstow. It has been 17 days since that moment and South Africa have finally registered a victory in this World Cup.