Azmatullah Omarzai had just pulled Kasun Rajitha with no timing whatsoever in the 43rd over, soon after reaching his 50. Pathum Nissanka would put in a brave dive from the deep, but the ball failed to stick. Afghanistan still needed 30-odd in the awkward chase that wasn’t steep but sufficiently deceptive.
Not thwarted, showing fearless instinct to risk-proof the same stroke, Omarzai would tame the pull shot next ball, playing it along the ground before it reached the mid-wicket fence. Meticulously- calculated aggression was Afghanistan’s batting mantra on Monday, as they overwhelmed the target of 242 for a comfortable 7-wicket win, despite losing opener Rahmanullah Gurbaz for nothing in the first over. After chasing down Pakistan’s total of 282 like pros, they have now shrugged off Sri Lanka.
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Never allowing asking-rate pressure for themselves, and unaffected by any T20 hangover, Ibrahim Zadran (39 off 57 balls), Rahmat Shah (62 off 74), Hashmatullah Shahidi (58 not out off 74) and Omarzai (73 not out off 63) orchestrated yet another impressive chase to humble another former world champion, their third scalp in the ongoing World Cup.
Speaking at the captains conference in early October, skipper Hashmatullah Shahidi had said on the eve of the tournament, “Iss time humara batting tagdaa hai (this time, our batting is strong).” Afghans of earlier generations were known to look up to Shahid Afridi as a batting idol. But in their 2023 avatar, they seem to have eschewed all impulsive batting tropes, and are operating on a neatly-tempered template of effective batsmanship, while chasing down targets – stiff or not.
Television cameras showed a white board with over-wise targets scribbled on them perched in front of head coach Jonathan Trott: it mentioned 50 runs for every slab of 10 overs till 40, and the last 42 by Over No.48. England’s erstwhile underrated ODI batsman, who was the perfect foil to Kevin Pietersen but never peer-pressured by his style, seemed to have impressed upon his charges the importance of sanguine run-building.
They picked the gaps by tweaking their wrists, paced the innings without stumbles, zoomed in on bowlers to target, chose moments in specific overs, and worked the Powerplay to display immense discipline in pursuing the little targets, always building partnerships.
Maturity and nous
Rahmat Shah was at his wristiest best clipping Rajitha to the legside, and didn’t think twice before punishing Angelo Mathews’ short- pitched loosener, punching it through the covers. Zadran too went on the front foot to flick Rajitha into the stands, but it was in bisecting fielders and pinging gaps that the Afghans impressed the most.
As 12,177 watched from the Pune stands, Azmatullah got together with captain Shahidi at 131/3 and refused to show any unsteady nerves and allow the chase to go awry. What the likes of England against India and South Africa against the Netherlands had failed to do, the Afghans accomplished as if they had been doing it for a long time.
As they neared the target, Azmatullah drawled deep into his crease to pull Maheesh Theekshana to deep square leg for a six. A shortish screamer from Dushmantha Chameera was ramped, using the bowler’s pace, over third man for his second maximum, and a third would come via a top edge to fine leg off a shoulder-high delivery. But all the big hitting was afforded to them only after they’d crossed the assigned targets.
Trott, speaking later, would stress on how his batsmen had learnt to accept responsibility in the middle. “It’s about giving the talent structure, a game plan and confidence,” he said. Batsmen in form were told to not leave things to luck, revisit basics and break totals into smaller manageable targets, while playing good cricket shots. “You don’t have to go at 15-16 an over,” he would state.
The support staff, he informed, had worked on not just developing techniques but also the mental side of chasing. Pressure was recreated in nets, and training sessions simulated the hard intensity of a real match. “Nobody’s got a 100 yet, that’s our next frontier,” Trott would say. He added that it had been a challenge for coaches of his generation, who were more accustomed to teaching batsmen to score quicker, to actually drill in the reverse in one-dayers – teaching T20 regulars to go sedate.
The likes of Ajay Jadeja had actually tutored the Afghans in how to absorb pressure.
Farooqi makes it count
So massively vaunted is Afghanistan’s lethal spin quartet that earlier in the day, left-arm pacer Fazalhaq Farooqi was playing second fiddle to fellow new-ball enthusiast, offie Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Called in place of Noor Ahmad after Chennai, though, Farooqi would make the opportunity count as he bagged 4-34 and helped Afghanistan restrict the Lankans to 241.
Opener Dimuth Karunaratne had started the sixth over driving Farooqi past extra cover, but the enraged quick was fast to retort. He would swing the very next delivery into the left-hander, pitching it fuller and Karunaratne trying to flick it would be trapped in front as a smart early review from Afghanistan would fetch them their first wicket on 22.
Naveen ul-Haq has been Afghanistan’s leading wicket-taker among pacers, but would go for runs on the day. And when Charith Asalanka slogged a few and lucked out with outside edges past the wicketkeeper stinging Rashid Khan, captain Shahidi would summon Farooqi ahead of the final Powerplay. Looking to accelerate in the 39th over, Asalanka would be frustrated by four dot balls, a melange of full deliveries and slow unscorable bouncers. He would be rushed into a pull after Farooqi banged the fifth one short and get caught at mid-off as Lanka tottered at 180/6.
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The inability to accelerate against Farooqi would also see Chameera dawdle and defend in the next over. The impatience increased at the other end as Mathews called for a run that would result in a horror run-out as Zadran didn’t miss his missile throw from cover-point.
Theekshana, fancying a few lusty hits with the bat, had driven away Omarzai and Naveen out of the attack. He would brutally pull Farooqi for a 78-metre maximum to deep mid-wicket for a 31-ball 29-run cameo, but once more the avenging southpaw speedster would rev up his rage. Three balls later, he would send a scorching yorker right into the base of the middle stump cam and Theekshana was too late to bring the bat down after making room.
Mathews had gone after Naveen with a no-look bent-low scoop over fine leg and pummelled a slower one straight past long-on the next over and was just threatening to explode. Farooqi would take the pace off the ball, as Mathews committed to the shot and ended up with an aborted straight loft with his bottom hand coming off, being caught brilliantly in the deep by Mohammd Nabi inches from the boundary to give the left-armer his fourth wicket. He would end with impressive figures of 4-34, including a maiden, off his 10.
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