Following Australia’s astonishing table turn against England, you might expect most of the conversation coming into their Super League Semi-Final against Afghanistan to be about their leg-spinner Lloyd Pope, who took 8/35 to reduce England from 47/0 to 96 all out in pursuit of 128.
But it’s a different spinner whose been the focus of a lot of the attention, and one who Australia will be trying to keep out – Afghanistan’s Mujeeb Zadran. There’s a lot that stands out about him. He’s already played full ODI cricket, taking 4/24 on debut against Ireland, and he took 4/14 in Afghanistan’s deconstruction of New Zealand in their Quarter-Final, and he’s just become very rich at a very young age, picked up for a cool US$630,000 by Kings XI Punjab to become the youngest overseas player in IPL history.
It’s the mystery that attracted KXIP – he’s labelled as an off-spinner, but with a legbreak, googly, and carrom ball in his arsenal you can never be quite sure what’s going to come out – and it’s this that Australia will have to contend with if they are to progress to the final. But while they’ve been preparing for the threat he poses, they haven’t been getting too absorbed in the challenge.
“We’ve been looking at their footage, we’ve been looking at their couple of good spinners,” said Australia captain Jason Sangha. “But for us the more we get worked into how good their spinners are it’s just gonna make us not play our best brand of cricket. Batting is just watching the ball, so as long as we keep watching their spinners and play accordingly. I think we’ve been playing the spin pretty well lately, and we can only really see so much on camera.”
And while Pope may no longer be the tournament’s main attraction, he’s found a firm place in the hearts of many of his countrymen. “The best thing about Australia is we’ve got so many fans that have been sending us messages and sending us all these memes of Popey,” said Sangha. “We’ve been getting around it, it’s been pretty funny.”
Australia opening batsman Jack Edwards has experienced the full force of Pope’s new-found fame, but thinks the limelight won’t change the wrist-spinner too much. “I’m rooming with him now,” he said. “And every time we’re watching the TV it seems to come up with his highlights and he loves it. He’s certainly enjoying the attention but I know Lloyd and he won’t let it go to his head too much. He’ll stay grounded.”
For Pope and Australia that game, as amazing as it was – Sangha called it “definitely one of the best days of my cricketing life” – is in the past, and thoughts are now on their upcoming game, and in particular how they can turn around what has, strangely for a team playing in a Semi-Final, been a poor tournament with the bat, with the Australians dismissed for 228 and 127 by India and England either side of pummelings of weak teams from which little can be gleaned.
“I don’t think we’ve played our perfect game as of yet,” said Edwards. “And that’s probably a good sign that we’re through to the semi-final and we haven’t played our best cricket. If we put our perfect game together it can be dangerous. A big focus of ours is partnerships. People are yet to bat their best and that’s a good sign that they’ve still got that to come in the semi-final.”
Edwards and Sangha are two of the few who have had success so far. Edwards was the only Australian batsman to pass 50 against India, while Sangha was the only one to do so against England. He also made 88 against PNG. Not thinking about too many things has been the key for both.
“I haven’t been overcomplicating it, keeping it simple, and having faith that I’ll play well,” said Edwards. “It always helps when you’ve got runs leading into the tournament, you’re not thinking like technique or anything like that, so pretty confident that I can perform.”
It’s similar for Sangha. “My job was quite simple,” he said of his half century against England. “My job was just to keep batting as many balls as I could for the team, and for me to do that all I do is just focus on watching the ball and on my breathing. The more I got caught up in the situation the team was in, the bowlers bowling well, the pitch doing a little bit, I could have got myself a bit worked up and I probably wouldn’t have batted as long as I could’ve.”
In this light, Australia’s attitude to facing Afghanistan’s spinners makes eminent sense. By not focussing on technique, the star quality in the opposition line up, or any other minutiae, they can distil cricket down to its simplest essence. It’s the approach that will give them the best chance of success in their Semi-Final.