Afghanistan have earned a place in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 courtesy of a thrilling victory over Ireland in Harare.
The equation going into the final Super Sixes match of the tournament was simple: The winner would compete on the grandest stage of them all next year. With both teams having everything to win – and lose – this mouth-watering tie was difficult to predict. Both teams had delivered moments of brilliance during this campaign as well as their fair share of hiccups. You didn’t quite know which teams would turn up.
AFGHANISTAN QUALIFY FOR #CWC19! 🇦🇫— Cricket World Cup (@cricketworldcup) 23 March 2018
They reach the target with five balls to spare to book their place at next year’s Cricket World Cup! #IREvAFG scorecard ➡️ https://t.co/fyBmasosgI pic.twitter.com/6R1dTfHiwP
After three losses in their opening three CWCQ matches, Afghanistan stood on the cusp of being eliminated from a tournament they had been favourites to progress from. They required victory from all their remaining games, and for many other results to go in their favour, to stand any chance of qualifying for the CWC.
But losses to Scotland, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong were followed by victories over Nepal, West Indies and UAE. Nepal’s surprise victory over Hong Kong did them a huge favour, while Scotland and Zimbabwe had gut-wrenching, rain-marred losses to West Indies and UAE respectively.
Things had gone in Afghanistan’s favour – and their batsmen used that momentum when they set about chasing down 210 for a spot at the CWC. It was a chase with many ebbs and flows.
Afghanistan were 80/0 off 16, with Mohammad Shahzad Ireland’s tormentor-in-chief, who soon brought up his fifty after a brutal opening onslaught. Fortune had favoured his brave outlook until he holed out in the deep for 54 off the bowling of Simi Singh, who had deceived the opener with a flatter, quicker delivery.
The hundred had been brought up after 22 overs but thereon Afghanistan batted cautiously, as Ireland began to bowl themselves back into the game. Rahmat Shah was caught at straight-midwicket off the off-spin of Singh. Ireland had set the trap for several overs with a couple of close leg-side fielders, desperately trying to make something happen. Hoping for spin; hoping for a mistake. Their plan worked.
During a critical stage of the innings, 113/2 became 117/3 in the 28th over when Gulbadin Naib skied one off the bowling of Boyd Rankin, as Ireland capitalised on scoreboard pressure. Mohammad Nabo also tried his luck against the outstanding Singh before holing out to cow-corner. Dot balls and wickets had unsettled an assured start in Afghanistan’s pursuit of glory. The pressure was now on.
Afghanistan required 59 from the final ten overs with six wickets remaining. Ireland knew that if they could take the game deep into the innings and keep the pressure on, they’d have a sniff of the jackpot. Afghanistan needed wickets to spare as they prepared for a late-innings onslaught, but boundaries were hard to come by.
🚨 Afghanistan need 20 runs off the final 24 balls to reach the @cricketworldcup. If they fail, Ireland take their place!— ICC (@ICC) 23 March 2018
Stop what you're doing right now and head to our blog, or the nearest TV!
📺 https://t.co/FzVOOSxP7U #CWCQ #RoadToCWC19 pic.twitter.com/v4fxzgQt22
McCarthy was back into the attack for the 44th over and his first two deliveries went for ten courtesy of powerful blows by skipper Asghar Stanikzai. Three came off the next two deliveries before a wicket on the fifth delivery, as Wilson took a sharp catch at point to dismiss Samiullah Shenwari for 27 off 63.
After 47.2 overs, exactly a run-a-ball was required. A huge six – straight out of the middle – from the left-handed Najibullah Zadran made Afghanistan the favourites in an instant, as 14 from 14 became 8 from 13. A few fine tickles for a couple apiece off the penultimate over bowled by Rankin made the scores level as we entered the final over, before an inside edge from the skipper secured a thrilling victory – and a World Cup spot – for Afghanistan and their adoring fans.
Earlier, Rashid Khan (3/40) fronted yet another excellent bowling performance to restrict Ireland to 209/7. Following the pattern of the tournament, it wasn’t easy to tell whether the score was a good one or not.
The Irish battled on a surface that was devoid of pace, but Afghanistan’s spinners prevailed once more. Partnering Rashid, Ashraf bowled with a lot of control while Mujeeb's new-ball spinner role continued with success.
Paul Stirling was on-song with a half-century, but unfortunately for him it was another impressive knock terminated by a poor run-out.
Niall O'Brien, playing his 100th One-Day International, said in his lunchtime interview that it was "A very defendable total – it's a very slow track. We'll field our hearts out, we'll bowl our hearts out". He had earlier carved a crucial 44-run stand for the third wicket with Stirling after Ireland’s top three had struggled to find the rope.
After some incredibly economical bowling – Mujeeb Ur Rahman (3.1) and Ashraf (3.0) were the tightest – it was left to Kevin O'Brien, with a 37-ball 41 which included three fours and a mammoth six, to carry Ireland past the 200-run mark.