Afghanistan, we have been repeatedly informed, should surprise a few people at this World Cup. They surprised few by losing their opening match to Australia, who cantered home today with 15 overs and seven wickets to spare after bowling the Afghans out for 207. The newest Full Members at the tournament gave a better account of themselves than some of their more established peers, becoming the first Asian team to pass 200 in this tournament, though given the series of blowouts this tournament has seen so far “better than some” is perhaps not the highest goal to aspire to.
Nonetheless there were a few surprises in the manner of the defeat, if not the result itself, especially in the second innings. Having won the toss and elected to bat, the batting went more or less to script for those who had been paying close attention to Afghanistan’s recent history.
The benching of underperforming senior players such as Samiullah Shinwari and Noor Ali Zadran was largely expected, and even the omission of former captain Asghar Afghan will have raised few eyebrows among Afghan fans. Mohammad Shahzad’s early vulnerability and leaden feet are not news to Afghanistan-watchers, and had likely been identified by Australia’s laptop-gazers too. His dismissal on the third ball of the match to a Mitchell Starc inswinger was regrettable but hardly remarkable. Likewise Hazratullah Zazai’s ability to clear his front foot, followed by the rope, is well known, but so too is his questionable front-foot placement on the drive.
Losing both openers without scoring was not the plan, but neither was it ever out of the question given the class of Australia’s opening bowlers. “Shah and Shadidi rebuilding for Afghanistan” is something of a stock phrase, as is “Najibullah cutting loose here heedless of the situation.” Nabi falling victim to the sort of fielding they will not have seen from their usual opponents, Rashid Khan batting rather well for a number eight, and Afghanistan nonetheless falling short of a competitive score, none of these outcomes were entirely unforeseeable.
What was a surprise, however, at least to those who have been keeping an eye on the Afghans since the last World Cup, was Hameed “Rambo” Hassan turning the clock all the way back to 2010. The perennially injured fan favourite served up a maiden on David Warner first up, beating the outside edge first ball, pace over 140 and moving through the air. “I think all the fans will want to know why haven't they been picking Hamid Hassan for the last 3 years” remarked Sanjay Manjrekar on the commentary, apparently unaware of Hassan’s long-standing injury woes, but Hassan bowled as if the last three, or perhaps ten years had never happened.
Few would have backed Afghanistan’s best-loved glass cannon to make it through the match without breaking down, much less finish the pick of the attack, giving away just 15 runs in his six overs. Conversely, Afghanistan’s celebrated spin attack looked comparatively innocuous. Conditions, admittedly, did not favour the Afghan twirlers, but Rashid’s disappointing return of 1-52 in eight and especially Mujeeb getting hammered for 45 off 29 deliveries may force a strategic rethink in the Afghan camp.
In the context of the tournament, they remain more or less where they expected to be. A resurgent Australia was always a tall order first up, but if Gulbadin Naib’s side are to spring a surprise run to the semis they will need to upset such teams.
More immediately their next match, against a beleaguered Sri Lanka at Cardiff on Tuesday, is now unquestionably a must-win fixture for Afghanistan. For all the disappointment of today’s result, their opponents on Tuesday are in a worse state. Sri Lanka were brushed aside by New Zealand in the day’s other match, skittled for 136 and failing to take a single wicket as New Zealand romped home with almost 34 overs to spare. Afghanistan’s most recent game against the Sri Lankans came at last year’s Asia Cup, and that clinical win is the archetype Afghanistan will look to replicate on Tuesday, and indeed throughout the tournament.
Failure on Tuesday would be a crippling early blow to Afghan hopes, with the middle phase of the tournament holding their toughest assignments. With matches against New Zealand, South Africa, England and India next on the schedule, anything less than two points in Cardiff could mean Afghanistan will be effectively out of contention by the time their next more winnable fixtures roll around.
Given Pakistan’s shellacing at the hands of the West Indies and the attendant impact on their net run rate, Afghanistan are still in a stronger position than their fellow Asian outsiders, facing Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the West Indies (who admittedly look a more daunting prospect than the side Afghanistan beat twice in the Qualifiers) in their final three games, a late surge is Afghanistan’s most plausible route to the semi-finals. Defeat today does not rule it out, but they will need points on the board soon if they are to have anything to play for by the business end of the group stage.