“Hum to doobe hai sanam, tumko lekar doobenge” (We are already drowned darling, but we’ll take you with us) -- Gulbadin Naib, Afghanistan’s last-minute choice of skipper for the World Cup, was in lyrical mood ahead of the World Cup game against Bangladesh.
The swag and subtle arrogance that was a feature of their off-field persona, however, was sorely missing from Afghanistan’s on-field performances. Coming into the World Cup, Afghanistan was deemed good enough to pull off at least one upset win. That did not happen, and their campaign ended with nine losses in as many games.
So what went wrong for the ‘Blue Tigers’? A superficial glance at their numbers tells a one-dimensional story, but dig a little deeper and you find hints of potential, areas of improvement, and overall signs that the side is better than their wooden spoon position seems to suggest.
Pace vs spin and spin vs spin
The highly varied spin attack remains Afghanistan’s huge positive. They picked up 24 wickets in the World Cup, the most by the spinners of any team, and conceded runs at an economy of under five, the only team to do so.
That was the good news. In the corresponding bad news column, their pace attack was the worst in the tournament. Even with Hamid Hassan, who could easily pass off as a war hero, delivering a sensational new ball spell at the beginning of the tournament against Australia (4-2-10-0), Afghanistan lacked the zing and pace to trouble teams. With 23 wickets in 9 matches at an average of 43.5 and an economy of 6.3, the pacers were disappointing.
Spin was clearly their main weapon, and in retrospect you could say Afghanistan was unlucky – their games against South Africa, New Zealand and England – three teams that do not do as well against quality spin – came in the first half of the tournament, on wickets that, freshened by rain, nullified their impact.
The spinners came into their own as the tournament in its second half moved to the north of England, conditions became sunny, and the pitches dried out. In their first five matches, Afghanistan’s spinners were a major disappointment, taking just eight wickets at an average of 68.87 and an economy rate of 6.09. This drastically changed in the latter half, when they picked up 16 wickets in four ODIs at an average of 35 and an economy of 4.21.
Off-field controversies played a major role in Afghanistan’s campaign. From the public displeasure expressed by Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan when the selectors decided to replace Asghar Afghan with Gulbadin Naib as captain just ahead of the World Cup, to Mohammad Shahzad’s unceremonious sacking (or impromptu fake injury) and Aftab Alam’s disciplinary issues, the management was busy dousing fires in the dressing room even as their campaign went down in flames on the field.
Decision-making appeared muddled right through the tournament. Gulbadin Naib tried too hard to lead from the front and, in the process, promoted himself up the batting order and took on the responsibility of bowling at the death, when better alternatives existed.
Ikram Alikhil is a case in point. He was initially down at number nine; when the teenager was arbitrarily promoted up the order to the pivotal number three, he showed both class and fight with a composed half-century.
“Initially [the team sent me in] at number eight or nine, but I would always prefer to bat at the top [of] the order as that is what I have done at the Under-19 level,” Ikram said after his knock against the West Indies. “But there were senior players there, so it was difficult for me to find my spot.”
That underlines the Afghan problem in this Cup campaign: decisions were taken not on cricketing logic, but on the basis of seniority, of ego, of trying to keep the peace in the dressing room. And thus Ikram, a proper top-order batsman at the under-19 level, was never tried in the top four until the last two matches despite visible cracks in the batting. Their top four batsmen contributed just 52.97% of the team’s runs at an underwhelming average of 25.25 and a soporific strike rate of 66.98 – the worst of any team in the tournament. With just four scores of fifty or more, the Afghan top order was constantly hoping for the lower order to rescue them from the hole they had dug themselves into.
The age problem
That you can link age to Afghanistan’s batting problems is telling of how in-house egos affected the campaign. The younger players, despite signs of talent, were pushed into unfamiliar roles with the bat. Rahmat Shah, who had never opened in ODIs before, was pushed to the top in the last three league games. At 25, he probably had less say in the team, but was their leading run-scorer – and the only one to score more than 1000 runs – since 2018 heading into the World Cup.
26-year old Najibullah Zadran, who mostly batted at no 6 before the World Cup, was played at no 7 or lower in seven out of eight games. He had the best average, 51.5, and strike rate, 101.4, for any Afghan batsman since 2018. It was only in the last game, against the West Indies, that he was finally played higher up the order at number 4, and he immediately showed signs of making an impact. That he was the second highest run-scorer for Afghanistan in the World Cup despite his lowly position in the batting order, but yet was not tried higher up the order, underlines Afghanistan’s faulty thinking and the debilitating impact of internal politics.
Similarly, the 21-year old Hazratullah Zazai was benched on and off. Hashmatullah Shahidi was perhaps the only youngster to consistently bat in a fixed position. And skipper Naib either pushed himself, or was pushed by a management intent on justifying his elevation to captaincy, into unfamiliar roles with both bat and ball.
The statistics tell the story: Batsmen aged 26 or less, that is, talented youngsters without excess mental baggage, had a much better World Cup than the ones on the wrong side of the age divide. The younger batsmen averaged 21.82 and made five half-centuries despite batting in unfamiliar positions, while the ones on the wrong side of the age barrier, who got to pick their slots, were lower in terms of both runs and averages.
That the team had promise was evident towards the back end of the campaign, when they finally allowed cricketing logic to dictate their roles -- they threw a major scare into the fancied Indians, ran Pakistan close, and produced a classy batting display against the West Indies.
The team management – which contributed to the on-field problems in the first place – now has a job on hand, to cut egos down to size, to give the talented youngsters more responsibilities, to uncover fresh talent to make up for their ageing stars.
That they began initiating some of these changes before their campaign ended -- pushing Ikram to number 3 and moving Zadran up the order in the last match the most visible signs – shows they are prepared to adapt and change. It will go down as an underwhelming World Cup for Afghanistan, but there is sufficient promise on show to hold out hope for the future.
*Data updated till 5th July 2019