Another game, another loss, and another creditable performance from Afghanistan. That is the third time in three games. It would almost be easier for Afghanistan’s cricket team and their passionate fans had they been roundly beaten in their matches against Sri Lanka, South Africa and England. More embarrassing of course, but at least they would know that this level of competition was beyond them. Instead, they have been in the running in every match and managed to make those that support them relish the chance of them taking on these teams again.
When they next get to play any of those teams that they met in this tournament’s main round is up for negotiation. Bilateral fixtures against top teams are not something that cricket is willing to give Afghanistan or any other Associate side. And therein lies Afghanistan’s biggest problem. When they get close to winning against one of these teams, it is special. You can see them tighten up, get more frantic.
For those that play consistently at the highest level, those nerves never disappear but are controlled. They know that they have won from this position before and can do it again. Self-belief usually supersedes the panic, if any.
England lost five wickets for 15 runs in 3.5 overs. The England players did not fret; a 52-run partnership between Moeen Ali and David Willey brought the game back under their control. In the end it was those runs at the end of England’s innings against Afghanistan bowlers who lost their lines and length that proved to be the difference at Kotla in Delhi on Wednesday afternoon.
For Afghanistan, the opposite happened. They had everything going their way and then it went all wrong, just as it had in the game against South Africa when two poor overs released the pressure and took the game away from them.
There comes a point where the game stops being about talent, and starts being about heart. Some players never find a way to survive at this level but the only way to find out is to get practice.
The fact that Afghanistan need more games has become a boring thing to write, a boring thing to say and a boring thing to tweet, but until something changes we cannot stop.
Give Afghanistan the funding and fixtures that any of the teams they played against in the last 10 days have and you cannot say with any sort of honesty that they would not have won at least one of these games. If things had really gone their way they could have won all three. The next chance Afghanistan will have to play so many fixtures against Full Members could be in World T20 in 2020, and even then that is only if they get through the pre-qualifying round.
For England it was a win, but not a good one. Their top-order looked completely clueless against spin and they would have been thankful for their ridiculously long batting line up. Of the 11 players that they picked for today’s game, 10 have a first class hundred and the 11th – Chris Jordan - has a first class high score of 92. It was the first time that the tactic of picking players than can bat over out-and-out bowlers paid dividends. They could have been dismissed for 120, in the end they made it to 142-7.
The addition of Liam Plunkett to the line-up was the right move; Reece Topley looked to be massively short of confidence after his battering in recent weeks. Plunkett’s figures of no wickets for just 12 were fantastic, and while he went wicket-less his parsimony made up for that.
He bowled his first maiden in T20 internationals and just his second in all T20 and every single one of his balls bar a leg-side wide were outside the off stump. He did not concede a single boundary. It was exactly what England had been missing in the first two matches.
While Plunkett was a welcome addition the undoubted star of the show was David Willey. While Moeen Ali picked up the Man of the Match award, it was Willey sticking around at the end for a 17-ball 20 and his wicket of Mohammad Shahzad that turned the game.
Shahzad was dismissed by a beautiful inswinger by the left-arm seamer that trapped him LBW. Of all the opening bowlers in this World T20, Willey has been the one that has got the ball to hoop through the air the most. This was the first time that it had a big impact. Any chance that Afghanistan had of chasing down this total rested with Shahzad getting them off to a quick start to calm his teammate’s nerves. He went in the first over and the Afghans never really recovered from that. Some decent late order hitting gave them a sniff but in reality it was a straightforward win for England, but one that was far from certain for much of the game.
Afghanistan are now eliminated from this event and have one more match against the West Indies before they are lost from the limelight until the next big event. They have been a joy to watch at this World T20, and they would be marvellous to watch at the 2019 World Cup. Sadly the chances of them qualifying are very slim.
For England they need to beat Sri Lanka and hope they have a good enough net run rate to make a semi-final. The first part should be simple enough, England are a better team than Sri Lanka. Whether the calculators are kind to them when they have done that is another matter.