Fifteen weeks away from the World Cup and Afghanistan, it seems, have little idea what their fifty-over side should look like. They may have hoped their five-game ODI series against Ireland at Dehradun, which concluded on Sunday with honours even at 2 wins apiece, might clarify the selectors thinking. Certainly they availed themselves of their outsized touring party, with all 19 players getting a run, yet if anything the questions have multiplied.
The two sides may be long-standing rivals and indeed twins of a sort, both welcomed into the world of ICC full members on the same day, yet there’s no escaping the fact that a tied series is a poor result for Asghar Afghan’s side. Playing against an Ireland side with their own (perhaps rather under-acknowledged) selection questions, on what is effectively home turf (not to mention with the benefit of a largely Afghan umpiring contingent who awarded 12 LBWs against Ireland across 4 innings compared to just 3 against the home side in 5), the 2-2 scoreline suggests Afghanistan’s World Cup preparations aren’t as far along as they might like.
There are positives to find in the series nonetheless, the settled spinning core of the side performed well, as did the skipper himself. Whether it was his old name or his appendix that was encumbering him, the captain formerly known as Asghar Stanikzai seems a whole new player since parting with both last year. After a string of single-digit scores in 2018 prompted questions about his place in the side and a bout with appendicitis at the World Cup Qualifier kept him hospitalised as his side almost crashed out in the group stages, it looked as though those thoroughly miserable few months might be his last at the helm of the Afghan side.
His return to form is a major reason Afghanistan avoided a series defeat, twice digging in to drag his side to a respectable score after the Irish found early wickets courtesy Afghanistan’s ever-rickety top order, and finishing top-scorer for the hosts with 226 runs at 75. Even though the Afghan looks in good touch, his struggles with niggling injury were on display again, twice forcing him off the field during the series, and there’s no guarantee that the veteran campaigner will be in shape to lead his side through the gruelling schedule of the World Cup.
The captain’s fitness worries are all-the-more concerning given that he is one of only a handful of certain picks in an increasingly unsettled side. Besides himself and No 3 bat Rahmat Shah, the only consistent selections through the series were the spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi. Afghanistan, in fact, have had a rotating cast of batsmen and seamers revolving around this steady spin section for some time now – the three plus Shah having been the only constant in the side since the start of the Qualifiers.
But then the trio would all be certain picks in any side in the world, and together constitute Afghanistan’s greatest cause for optimism ahead of the World Cup. 30 overs of world-class spin every match is nothing to be sniffed at, even if pitches in England are unlikely to afford much help. Rashid and Nabi’s ability with the bat also add much-needed depth to Afghanistan’s batting, and Mujeeb’s constant wicket-taking threat permits his captain to exercise his preferred tactic of keeping Rashid’s overs in reserve until deep into the innings.
Mujeeb again outshone the more experienced Nabi and Rashid to finish as Afghanistan’s lead wicket-taker in the ODI series, and at least in the 50-over format now looks altogether as indispensable as Rashid in the Afghan attack. Khan himself remains the games’ stand-out white ball bowler as he demonstrated again in the T20I series – where he claimed more scalps than the rest of the side put together – but as a corollary he is now certainly the most watched and studied too. The inevitable consequence of intensive analysis and batsmen around the world squinting at laptops is that inevitably opponents have improved their ability to counter (though certainly not nullify) Khan, and his initial aura of invincibility has somewhat faded.
During World Cup Qualifier group stages at Bulawayo back in March, Scotland’s Calum MacLeod demonstrated that even on turning tracks batsmen with the courage to (reverse) sweep and the skills to execute can take Khan for plenty of runs, and at Dehradun deserved player-of-the-series Andy Balbirnie reprised the lesson. Khan’s return of 5-137 for the series are hardly the figures of a bowler who has been “found out” of course, but compared to his 8-96 in the two sides’ previous series (in Ireland) he did not have quite his usual hold over Irish batsmen, at least in the 50-over format. Whether full member sides will have been as diligent in their homework is an open question of course, but global stardom has likely stripped the Afghan spin trio of much of their mystery and come the World Cup conditions in England will almost certainly be less spin-friendly.
That said, they will in all likelihood be even less forgiving of tepid or wayward seam bowling. It seems an age ago now that the rising Afghanistan were known not for their spinners but for the sizzling, exuberant pace of the now-chronically injured Hamid Hassan and the now-aged Shapoor Zadran. Zadran’s recall for the series seems almost like an exercise in nostalgia, the veteran paceman (who has represented Afghanistan on and off since 2003) bowled just 8 wicket-less overs in the last match of the series, his selection keeping Aftab Alam on the sidelines, who arguably has reasons to feel aggrieved at being benched after picking up 4-25 in his only outing.
Alam and all-rounder Gulbadin Naib probably have the strongest claims to a seamer’s spot in the side, but the pair bowled barely 20 overs between them over the course of the series. Dalwat Zadran’s 5-87 across two games was a decent return, though in a low-scoring series hardly eye-catching. The hunt for a serious seam option may still be on for the Afghans over the coming three months, though with a long waiting list of talented spinners such as Zahir Khan and Shafaruddin Ashraf largely confined to the sidelines there must be a temptation to flout convention and head to England with a team packed full of slow-bowlers.
Either way, success will depend on the batsmen giving them something to defend, and on current evidence the top order may not be up to that task. Yet though Ireland again exposed the brittleness of the Afghan batting card, one suspects the ingredients to stage upsets in England are still there. The likes of Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Shahzad or Noor Ali Zadran on a flat track with real pace on the ball in a packed stadium with the eyes of the world on them - are a rather different proposition to the same pair on a sluggish track facing the nagging medium pace of Tim Murtagh. They may not survive too many more deliveries, but one suspects they will make better use of them.
Be it through overconfidence or weight of expectation, Afghanistan don’t carry the label of favourites well, and indeed they have shown themselves vulnerable to lesser sides than Ireland in the recent past. It may seem perverse to claim they pose a greater threat to better sides, but then the Afghans have always played their best cricket as underdogs, and that’s how they’ll be heading to England.