Everyone loves a good underdog story, especially on the big stage. And Afghanistan’s story is probably the most inspirational one this sport has witnessed in the last 20 years. Ten years ago, no one would have envisaged Afghanistan playing a 50-over World Cup that has only the 10 best teams in the world. But here they are, fighting all odds back home, making the most of the limited resources available, raking up wins in their adopted home venue in India and now finally making it to England.
They are certainly a fun bunch to root for and have some exciting players in their ranks to keep an eye on. Their recent performances will also give the neutrals enough reasons to keep track of their progress. If the pitches do slow down in the second half of the tournament, they are certain to dent the hopes of some of the top sides. Kenya in 2003, Ireland and Bangladesh in 2007, will it be Afghanistan in 2019?
So what’s their gameplan?
Stifle the opposition with spin.
If the conditions are overcast and the pitches are as flat as a pancake, then this strategy might not really work out but bowlers like Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman are going to be a threat nevertheless as they tend to take the surface out of the equation. Their strength is the spin attack with some uncertainty around that batting unit.
Having the likes of Mohammad Shahzad and Hazratullah Zazai will allow Afghanistan to go all guns blazing at the start with Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi present in the middle order to consolidate. Ideally, they will look to restrict the opposition to scores below 280 as any target over 300 might prove to be out of reach.
Player should watchout for
They have players with bigger reputations like Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi but this young left-handed dynamite might have a huge say in their fortunes. Afghanistan have been relying heavily on Mohammad Shahzad all these years for impetus up top but Zazai’s introduction has eased the burden on the wicketkeeper-batsman.
He has been making headlines with his belligerent hitting and in a T20I recently, he smashed an unbeaten 162 that had 16 sixes in it. On flat pitches, he could well turn out to be the key in Afghanistan’s quest for big runs. In the warm-up contest against Pakistan, he helped himself to a 28-ball 49. Even though consistency isn’t his forte in the 50-over format, some cameos up top could prove to be the difference-maker.
What are their chances?
A semifinal spot is far-fetched but do expect a few surprises. By no means are they destined to finish tenth in the competition, and no team will take them lightly in the competition. After the promise they have shown in recent times, if they can pick up three wins in the nine league games to avoid finishing in the bottom two, Afghanistan should consider it a successful campaign.
Gulbadin Naib (C), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Noor Ali Zadran, Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Afghan, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Najibullah Zadran, Samiullah Shinwari, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran, Aftab Alam, Hamid Hassan and Mujeeb ur Rahman.
June 1, 2019 vs Australia at Briston (D/N)
June 4, 2019 vs Sri Lanka at Cardiff (D)
June 8, 2019 vs New Zealand at Taunton (D/N)
June 15, 2019 vs South Africa at Cardiff (D/N)
June 18, 2019 vs England at Manchester (D)
June 22, 2019 vs India at Southampton (D)
June 24, 2019 vs Bangladesh at Southampton (D)
June 29, 2019 vs Pakistan at Leeds (D)
July 4, 2019 vs West Indies at Leeds (D)