By Anand Vasu in Chittagong
Nepal will hope to adapt quickly to conditions that favour Afghanistan’s formidable pace attack, with both teams having a point to prove
For Nepal, the major task at hand is to show that it can overcome the pitch at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium in Chittagong. The surface began skiddy and pacy, and plays true for the best part, but when dew sets in, it changes dramatically. The odd ball has kept low for the spinners, and at the same time, quick men who are willing to bend their back have got inordinate bounce.
On the face of it, these conditions should suit Afghanistan perfectly, while taking the spin out of Nepal’s spin twins Bansant Regmi and Shakti Gauchan. It should help Afghanistan’s batsmen too, for they are the kind who prefer to block four balls and then launch two audacious sixes rather than motor along at a steady pace.
Sarad Vesawkar, who was impressive in Nepal’s defeat to Bangladesh, admitted that things were stacked against his team. “To be very honest, we’re not used to these kind of conditions – grassy wickets where the ball seams a bit and skids on,” said Vesawkar, who adapted quite beautifully to make a polished 40 against Bangladesh. “Back home we play mostly on dead tracks. We had to adjust and maybe it was difficult initially.”
Afghanistan will be hoping to make life difficult in exactly this manner for Nepal. In Shapoor Zadran, the long-haired left-armer with a whippy action, and Dawlat Zadran, the right-armer who lopes in leisurely and lets rip with a strong shoulder, Afghanistan has two quick men who can trouble the best batsmen in the world. Kabir Khan, the former Pakistani left-arm medium pacer who now coaches Afghanistan, was so convinced of his team’s strength that he believed it was no coincidence that a slow pitch was served up in its opening game in Mirpur. “We have good-quality fast bowlers, we train them like that, they are aggressive and everybody knows that our fast-bowling attack is very good, especially at Associate standard and sometimes at Test standard,” said Kabir. “In the Asia Cup, the bowling was very good all throughout and I think that’s why the Mirpur wicket was a bit slow.”
In their final match, Afghanistan will have no such concerns, a neutral game meaning that the curators at Chittagong have no incentive to maximise home advantage. “Every match is important and we want to win, obviously now we are in a position to plan to win with big margins. Cricket is a funny game and we are expecting a one percent chance of anybody beating Bangladesh here,” said Kabir. “But if Hong Kong beats Bangladesh, we have to keep our chances alive, at least the run rate should be higher and if that happens and our run rate is there, then we could qualify.”
While all cricketing arguments point to Afghanistan over Nepal, the one thing that is hard to argue with is the never-say-die brand of cricket the men from the mountains have played. According to Vesawkar, this is no accident. “We’re all born and brought up in Nepal and know each other very well having played together from age-group cricket. Unlike some other teams, we don’t have any expats playing for us. That ensures that we have very good team spirit,” he said. “We’re Nepali and proud to play for Nepal. We’re amateur cricketers with limited facilities, so to be able to come here and give our best is something to be proud of.”
There is another point to prove here for Nepal, which perhaps knows Afghanistan better than anyone else in cricket circles. “We know them, how they play, and they know us in the same way. We play hard on the field, but when we meet at the hotel we’re in each other’s rooms all the time. We are good friends off the field,” said Vesawkar. “We always like to play against Afghanistan. In 2008 we were neck and neck, but they suddenly rose to the occasion and we were left behind a little bit. We tried to catch up and hopefully we can do well against them.”
Afghanistan, as its captain Mohammad Nabi said a couplef days ago, wants to prove its supremacy among Associate teams. Nepal would like to believe that it has caught up, and this is its time. How can this not make for compelling viewing?
Afghanistan: Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Nawroz Mangal, Karim Sadiq, Shafiqullah, Mohammad Nabi (capt), Najibullah Zadran, Gulbadin Naib, Samiullah Shenwari, Dawlat Zadran, Shapoor Zadran, Hamza Hotak, Najeeb Tarakai, Asghar Stanikzai, Mirwais Ashraf, Aftab Alam.
Nepal: Paras Khadka (capt), Pradeep Airee, Binod Bhandari, Amrit Bhattarai, Naresh Budayair, Shakti Gauchan, Avinash Karn, Subash Kakurel (wk), Gyanendra Malla, Jitendra Mukhiya, Basant Regmi, Sagar Pun, Sompal Kami, Sharad Vesawkar, Rahul Vishwakarma.