By Anand Vasu in Chittagong
Late charge by Stanikzai not enough as Afghanistan falls nine runs short of target after Khakurel hits Nepal’s first T20I fifty
When Afghanistan won the toss and put Nepal in, there were signs that Mohammad Nabi believed he could bully the opposition a touch. Shapoor Zadran, who would be in the reckoning to make the cut in most full member teams, ran in with good rhythm, and Dawlat Zadran hurried the batsmen.
Sagar Pun and Subash Khakurel, attempting to grow into a steady partnership at the top of the order, played within themselves, content to play themselves in, even with the PowerPlay on. But Pun’s attempt to clear mid-off in the fourth over failed, and Nepal was 19 for 1.
Gyanendra Malla showed excellent urgency, attacking Samiullah Shenwari in the sixth over. A beautiful extra cover drive, all along the ground, a loft over a packed offside cordon and two monstrous mows over midwicket yielded an 18-run over and gave the Nepal innings the momentum it so badly needed. But, buoyed by his initial success Malla (22) attempted a reverse sweep when a safe single was on offer and popped a catch to short third-man.
Paras Khadka, who has been the backbone of Nepal’s batting in the tournament, attempted to go big, across the line, before he had the measure of conditions, and Mirwaiz Ashraf made a mess of the stumps. Its two most accomplished batsmen were back in the hut with only 53 on the board and 11 overs still to play, and Nepal was in trouble.
Khakurel bailed it out with a mature innings, building a partnership with a 76-run fourth-wicket stand in which Subash Vesawkar showed that his team was not solely dependent on a couple of players. Khakurel was not afraid to play out a few more dot balls than you usually see in a Twenty20 innings, and it was largely his 56 – the first half-century by a Nepal batsman at this level – that gave the innings substance. Khakurel may have consumed 53 balls in the process, striking at just over 103, but his effort meant that Afghanistan’s bowlers did not run roughshod over Nepal.
Vesawkar helped himself to a 32-ball 37, but once more Nepal failed to finish its innings strongly, and ended on 141 for 5, at least 20 runs short on a belter of a pitch.
Afghanistan began its innings in strange fashion, neither opener keen on singles. While Nepal’s bowlers lacked the zip and verve of its Afghan counterparts, they were more disciplined, and when this was backed up by plucky fielding, the boundaries were hard to come by. Karim Sadiq (8) and Mohammad Shahzad (6) swung at everything with gay abandon anyway, and it was no real surprise that both were dismissed cheaply.
With the openers gone in a hurry the natural thing to do for the middle order would have been to buckle down and get a partnership going, especially given that the target was not a massive one. But, Najibullah Zadran chipped one straight to mid-on, Nawroz Mangal was brilliantly caught by Khadka running back a long way towards square-leg and Nabi was trapped in front of the stumps as Afghanistan slumped to 50 for 5.
Shafiqullah used the same approach as those before him, but connected cleanly over and over again, slapping five fours and one monstrous six over square-leg for 36 before failing to keep a cut shot down off Basant Regmi.
When Afghanistan’s last recognised pair, Asghar Stanikzai and Samiullah Shenwari, came together, 59 runs were still needed, off only 35 balls. The two had no option but to be aggressive and Stanikzai got a move on, sending Shakti Gauchan deep into the stands over long-on. The equation was reduced to 30 off the final two overs, and Nepal desperately needed to break the partnership.
With only three runs coming off the first three balls of the penultimate over, Shenwari pulled out the big shot, but only managed to sky the ball back over the bowler’s head. Charging in from wide mid-off, Khadka pulled off his second stunner of the game, swinging the balance in his team’s favour.
When the final over began, with 24 still needed, all eyes were on Stanikzai. Booming shots off the first two balls brought boundaries at midwicket as Malla, running across from long-on failed to pull the ball back on both occasions. Sompal Kami, reading the batsman’s intentions, speared the third ball full, outside the off, and the batsmen managed to scramble two. The fourth ball was short, and disappeared once more, leaving 10 needed off two. Stanikzai’s luck ran out off the penultimate ball when he holed out to long-on, Malla making no mistake and ending a rousing innings on 49. When the final ball was sent down, Afghanistan ended on 132 for 8, 10 adrift of pulling off a major heist.