England won a thrilling semi-final against Afghanistan by 15 runs to seal a spot in the ICC U19 Men’s Cricket World Cup Final against either India or Australia on Saturday.
A partnership of 95 for the seventh wicket saw England scramble to a competitive total of 231/6 in 47 overs, with the match reduced due to a rain delay.
But Afghanistan took the game deep, needing 19 off the final 12 balls and with wickets in hand, only for Rehan Ahmed to take three wickets in a dramatic penultimate over to leave the run-chase 15 short.
England had won the toss and opted to bat first in overcast conditions at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua, but lost dangerous opener Jacob Bethell early on.
Captain Tom Prest and George Thomas led the recovery to that early setback, with runs coming fast against Afghanistan’s medium-pacers, and the pair took their side to 56 inside the powerplay before Prest fell for a quickfire 17.
Thomas continued to a half-century that featured two sixes and four fours, but Afghanistan’s spin trio of Noor Ahmad, Izharulhaq Naveed and Nangeyalia Kharote seemed to give their side the upper hand in the game through the middle overs, taking four wickets between them and proving extremely tough to get away.
England were in trouble on 136/6 after 35.1 overs when Rehan Ahmed fell to Naveed Zadran for a battling 16, and a brief rain shower saw the game reduced to 47 overs per side.
But a big late partnership between George Bell and Alex Horton ensured that the match was in the balance at the midway point, with Bell finishing unbeaten on 56 from 67 balls, and Horton racing to a 36-ball 53*.
The 18 overs of pace bowled by Afghanistan went for 134 runs, with England struggling throughout against spin in contrast.
Afghanistan’s reply got off to a poor start when Nangeyalia Kharote was bowled for a duck off the third ball of the innings, with the excellent Joshua Boyden striking with the new ball yet again for England.
But Afghanistan recovered well, putting on 93 runs for the second wicket as Mohammad Ishaq (43) and Allah Noor (60) built the platform to give their side a fighting chance of chasing down the target.
A topsy-turvy encounter swung back in England’s favour midway through the reply, thanks largely to 17-year-old Thomas Aspinwall, who produced a superb run-out to dismiss opener Ishaq before picking up two wickets off his medium-pace bowling to leave Afghanistan needing a rebuild on 106/4.
But that rebuild did come, with Abdul Hadi (37*), Bilal Ahmad (33) and Noor Ahmad (25) ensuring that the semi-final came down to an extremely nervy finish.
Needing 19 to win off the final two overs and with the well-set Hadi and Ahmad at the crease, Afghanistan looked firmly in the mix to win the match.
But Rehan Ahmed had other ideas, winning it for England with a stunning three-wicket salvo. The first saw Ahmad brilliantly caught by James Rew, who had earlier put down a tricky catch on the boundary to give Afghanistan a let-off.
Naveed fell three balls later, caught on the ropes by James Sales as he went for the big hit. And Ahmed clean-bowled Bilal Sami with a googly off the very next ball to all-but wrap up the win for England, a victory that was confirmed in the final over, with Afghanistan falling 15 runs short.
Their victory means England have ended a 24-year wait for a spot in an ICC U19 Men’s Cricket World Cup Final.
They will face the winner of Wednesday’s second semi-final between India and Australia in that showpiece event at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on Saturday.
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