Afghanistan bite and sting their way to heavyweight schooling; England, Pakistan pushed to the brink
Afghanistan are finally punching above their weight at the World Cup 2023, which has caused some serious distress in the England and Pakistan camps.
England are hanging on perilously, by their fingertips; Pakistan are only marginally better off. The World Cup campaigns of the two former champions are hanging by a slender thread. That’s not the only common denominator between the sides at the 2023 World Cup.
Both have been well schooled by Afghanistan, feisty and spunky and spirited and vastly entertaining, but who have also added loads of restraint and substance to their swagger and style. Neither England nor Pakistan would have realistically expected to be overwhelmed by Hashmatullah Shahidi’s men and yet, here we are.
Afghanistan’s defeat of England at the Arun Jaitley Stadium came out of nowhere. Just four days previously, also in the national capital, they had been swatted aside by India, their 272 for eight on an excellent surface proving vastly inadequate with the hosts sweeping home with 90 deliveries to spare. Coming on the back of their six-wicket loss to Bangladesh, it was hard to see how the Afghans would add to their tally of one World Cup win in 15 games, secured against Scotland in 2015 in Dunedin.
England seemed to have bounced back from their opening-game drubbing to New Zealand, having flexed their batting muscles in a 137-run conquest of Bangladesh. Everything pointed to the form book holding true, until the Afghans shredded it with a 69-run victory, based on the virtues that make them a dangerous side.
Afghanistan’s strength is their multi-pronged, multi-faceted spin attack, which can test the best in the world at the first hint of assistance. Their 50-over approach revolves around putting runs on the board, maybe in the region of 260, and allow the likes of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb-ur-Rehman and Mohammad Nabi to get to work. It didn’t work against India on a true pitch but presented with a little wear and tear against England, the spinners were all over the defending champions like a bad rash.
Between them, the trio finished with eight for 104 from 25.3 overs, plotting one spectacular dismissal after another to leave England shell-shocked and bowled out for 215. It was Afghanistan at their marauding best.
That was on October 15. Eight nights later, Afghanistan showcased a side of their cricket not always obvious – the propensity to chase down a tall target with minimum fuss. There was almost a touch of India to the way they hunted down Pakistan’s 282 for seven at Chepauk, the job done with eight wickets to spare and six deliveries in hand.
Pakistan had been wary of facing Afghanistan for the very reasons mention above – a spin-friendly surface, the potential for help for the Afghan tweakers. They must have been pleasantly surprised to have been asked to bat first, but they were singularly unprepared for the felicity with which Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran, Rahmat Shah and Shahidi orchestrated the chase. It was clinical, it was professional, it was unhurried, it was singularly devoid of panic. It was a masterclass in the art of chasing, against an excellent if out-of-form bowling attack.
Afghanistan’s twin wins, and Netherlands’ extraordinary defeat of South Africa in Dharamsala, have been the three big shocks in the first half of the league phase. The more established ‘smaller’ nations, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have been disappointingly flat, but Test cricket’s newest entrants and the Dutch, who don’t boast the most intimidating cricketing pedigree, have more than made up with their sparkle and swag. That can only be good for a sport that, despite its recent inclusion in the 2028 Olympics at Lons Angeles, is still the hegemony of only a chosen few.
The upsurge of the underdog always brings feel-good with it. Especially at a time when some of the one-time mighty, such as West Indies, have fallen woefully by the wayside, it’s imperative that new stars emerge, new heroes establish themselves as role models and inspirations that players from the non-established nations can look up to. For the likes of Virat Kohli and David Warner to exhilarate is fine, but when a Gurbaz or a Scott Edwards (the Netherlands captain) fires a shot for little David against big, bad Goliath, the impact it leaves is beyond tangible.
Afghanistan are sixth, Netherlands have hit rock-bottom after their tournament record 309-run annihilation by Australia on Wednesday, and it will take a miracle for either of them to be even in contention for a semifinal berth. But no one will ever consider them pushovers again, and if that’s not a development worth welcoming, then few things are, truth to tell.
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