Afghanistan came into the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018 in good form, on the back of a 3-2 one-day international series win over Zimbabwe – the hosts of the qualifiers, no less – earlier this year.
They were a team on a roll, starring Rashid Khan, No.1 in the MRF Tyres ICC Men’s T20I Rankings for bowlers and No.2 on the corresponding list for ODIs. Mohammad Shahzad, Rahmat Shah, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran and Asghar Stanikzai formed the core of their batting and each of them had been among the runs – Nabi among the wickets too.
What could go wrong? Well, everything. Or almost everything.
Stanikzai out of action
He might yet come back to join the team, but Stanikzai’s absence from the first round of matches as he had surgery for appendicitis became a much bigger blow that it might have been in different circumstances.
Stanikzai is the regular captain of Afghanistan. In his absence, 19-year-old Rashid was handed the reins. It started fine, with a win over Windies in a warm-up tie prior to the qualifiers, but then, once the tournament started, everything started to go pear shaped.
Blown away by MacLeod
Nabi's fighting 92 and Najibullah’s 67 took Afghanistan to a respectable 255. However, they were outperformed by a brilliant Calum MacLeod, who hit 157* to take Scotland to victory with 2.4 overs to spare.
Narrow loss to Zimbabwe
Next up were Zimbabwe, familiar opponents, but in their backyard this time. The game turned out to be just as competitive as anticipated, but ended in heartbreak for Afghanistan as Zimbabwe won by the narrowest of margins: 2 runs. Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rashid picked up three-fors to stop Zimbabwe at 196, but despite Rahmat’s 69 and Nabi’s 51, and being 156/3 at one stage, it didn’t work out.
As if two consecutive defeats weren't bad enough, Afghanistan were dealt a body blow when opening batsman and wicket-keeper Mohammad Shahzad was suspended for two games as he was found guilty of breaching Article 2.1.8 the ICC's Code of Conduct, which relates to “abuse of cricket equipment or clothing, ground equipment or fixtures and fittings during an international match”. After the Stanikzai setback, there was now a Shahzad-shaped hole in the line-up.
The Hong Kong reversal
Surely, despite everything, Afghanistan would beat Hong Kong and stay in the race? Not quite. Rashid went wicketless and Hong Kong got to 241/8. Afghanistan started chasing, and it seemed on track while Nabi and Najibullah were batting. But rain forced a target revision, and Afghanistan lost their last five wickets for only 64 runs to lose by 30 runs (DLS method).
“You can't expect such a performance from Afghanistan, the way we have played in the last two years. The guys played some irresponsible cricket, which wasn't expected from them,” said Rashid afterwards, as Afghanistan’s chances were left hanging by a slim mathematical thread.
A win and a prayer
Afghanistan beat Nepal in the final group game, but would that do the trick or would it only be a consolation win? For them to proceed to the next round, Hong Kong had to lose to Nepal and then the net run rates would have to be worked out.
And the sigh of relief
The god of cricket, at least on the day, was most certainly of Afghan origin – Nepal did win, and Afghanistan were through.
They are in the Super Sixes now, but without a point to carry forward, which is not always ideal. But Afghanistan have made it to the second round, and a good run there could do it for them. The team need to come together for that, though, and take some of the pressure off Nabi, who has been their standout performer.
Best batsman: Mohammad Nabi – 215 runs at 53.75; Best 92
Best bowler: Mujeeb Ur Rahman – 9 wickets at 16.22; Best 3/26
Fixtures: Super Sixes
Thursday 15 March: v Windies at Harare Sports Club
Tuesday 20 March: v UAE at Old Hararians Sports Club
Friday 23 March: v Ireland at Harare Sports Club