THE Afghanistan team arrived in India with an aim to qualify for the Cricket World Cup semifinals. And after the half-way stage of the tournament they have already put the defending champion England and 1992 winner Pakistan on the verge of elimination.
Afghanistan shocked England by 69 runs in New Delhi in one of the greatest World Cup upsets and then followed that with an authoritative eight-wicket win over Pakistan in Chennai.
With probably the best spin attack at the World Cup, Afghanistan will fancy its chances against Sri Lanka and the Netherlands in the upcoming games before facing high-flying South Africa and a rejuvented Australia in their final two matches.
Whether Afghanistan could achieve its ultimate target of qualifying for the semifinals or not, the Afghans have surely made their mark with their two stunning victories over England and Pakistan.
Ex-Pakistan captain Rashid Latif, who coached Afghanistan 10 years ago, believes it will be big achievement for the Afghans if they finish with even six or eight points at the end of the league stage.
“They [Afghanistan] dictated from the first ball until the last ball when they played against England and Pakistan,” Latif told the Associated Press. “It was a terrific planning, whosoever planned it in their dressing room. The unity they have, makes them a very special team, and that’s reflected on the field.
“When I coached Afghanistan, I learnt only one thing and that was unity. They had been through some tough times.”
Afghanistan looked under-prepared when it lost to Bangladesh by six wickets after getting bowled out for 156 and Rohit Sharma’s blazing century handed the team another eight-wicket drubbing at Delhi.
The two heavy losses didn’t shake the confidence of the Afghans as England collapsed for 215 against spinners Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi.
Latif is more impressed with young opener Rahmanullah Gurbaz, whose aggressive 80 off 57 balls propelled Afghanistan’s total to challenging 284.
“Gurbaz showed that one man can do everything, his batting conquered England,” Latif said. “They have beaten the 2019 champions which is not a small thing. It was not a small victory. It should be written in golden words because now they have beaten two world champion teams.”
Afghanistan coach Jonathan Trott has perfectly assessed the weaknesses of the opposition and their planning came to the fore against Pakistan when they included wrist spinner Noor Ahmad as their fourth spinner in the playing XI.
And Ahmad didn’t disappoint in his debut World Cup game. The wily wrist spinner took out the heart of Pakistan’s batting line-up with the key wickets of Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and opening batter Abdullah Shafique.
The three big wickets didn’t allow Pakistan to come close to the 300-run mark as Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran and Rahmat Shah all cracked half-centuries in one of the most authoritative run chases at the World Cup.
“So happy, big win. That was really special, waiting for a long time for this game. Wow!” Gurbaz said after Afghanistan players took the victory lap at the Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai.
“We were waiting for this kind of game for 6-7 years. Whenever we faced them, they always beat us. That was the first time that we beat them.”
Trott was so impressed with the win that he said it could inspire the next generation in Afghanistan to take up the sport.
“It inspires another generation of players to pick up a cricket bat and a cricket ball, work on their fielding and their fitness,” Trott said. “We see that the guys are very fit today and fielding for 50 overs and then Ibrahim (Zadran) batting for 35, close to 40 overs is a great, great credit to him.”
Sri Lanka had revived their hopes in the World Cup with two back to back wins over out-of-sorts England and the Netherlands. Sri Lanka lost high-scoring games against South Africa and Pakistan before their batters couldn’t convert a solid start against Australia and went down by five wickets.
But the pitch in Pune might test Sri Lanka batters once again as the slow surface could tempt Afghanistan to field the spin quartet once again.
Image credits: AP