It was, at least, good entertainment. In a tournament that sorely needed it, Afghanistan’s see-saw, stop-start rain-affected defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka in Cardiff saw momentum shift wildly from one side to another, as each, by turns, showcased the best and the worst of their qualities.
In a match against a side in turmoil where they had started as arguable favourites, Afghanistan instead played to type as plucky underdogs, precisely the sort of label they are looking to shake off, playing precisely the sort of cricket they might have hoped to put behind them.
The lengthy round-robin group stage that is a regrettable feature of the shrunken format does not lend itself to must-win match-ups early in the tournament, but for Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, both of whom sank to opening defeats in their first games against New Zealand and Australia respectively, Tuesday's encounter had the look of one.
For Afghanistan, as they head into a string of daunting mid-group match-ups, the defeat leaves them with a near-impossible hill to climb to even get back into contention for an escape from the group stage.
They will be rank underdogs heading into their next few matches, and that’s how they looked on Tuesday – a world away from the cool, clinical side that saw off the same opponents at the Asia Cup last year. For the first 20 overs, in fact, it looked like they were in for humiliation. Having won the toss and prompted by the grey sky to insert the Sri Lankans, Gulbadin Naib shelved Afghanistan’s tried-but-increasingly-untrustworthy Mujeeb gambit and instead opted to put his faith in his pace pair of Dawlat Zadran and Hameed Hassan. What followed was a shambles.
Zadran’s radar seemed shot entirely, and Hassan was bludgeoned out of the attack by Kusal Mendis after just his second over. Dawlat followed him in the next, essentially bowling himself out of the attack as extras, comfortably outscoring Dimuth Karunaratne at this point, took Sri Lanka past fifty inside the fifth over. Mohammad Shahzad’s previously-identified shortcomings keeping to pace were quite indecently exposed, sluggish footwork and limited athleticism leaving him unable to haul in Zadran’s wilder deliveries. Afghanistan, in short, looked not so much outclassed as entirely out to lunch.
Naib turned back to the safe familiarity of spin swiftly, bringing on Nabi and Mujeeb possibly several overs earlier than planned. Nabi, ever the man for a crisis, applied the brakes at one end, but Mujeeb looked an altogether busted flush at the other, taken for 19 off his three overs and duly withdrawn too.
The rapid bowling changes were looking increasingly reactive, Rashid Khan pressed into service in the 16h over, by which time at the other end Naib found himself pondering the quandary so often faced by seam-bowling captains; when to take yourself off if you’re getting utterly pumped. The answer to that, of course, is that if the best time to take yourself out is two overs ago, the next best time is now. So Naib belatedly realised, throwing the ball back to Hassan after conceding 19 off the 17th.
And then it turned. Nabi turned it. Naib, either through inspiration or desperation, had acceded to Nabi’s request for a slip for his second spell, and Rahmat Shah at first slip would take two catches in the first over thereof, Nabi having already bowled Thirimmane of the inside edge on the second ball. Hassan nicks off de Silva in the next and suddenly Afghanistan are flying.
Wickets tumble, Sri Lanka on the ropes, great entertainment. Kusal Perera falls to Rashid Khan for 78 just before the rain comes. Sri Lanka are eight-down with 182 on the board at the rain break, all out for 201 shortly after.
It’s been a brave fightback, a great story. Afghanistan had hauled Sri Lanka back from 144/1 in 21 overs to 201 all-out. Yet, 35 of those 201 runs came in extras, the top-scorer after Perera in fact, and 34 would be the margin of defeat. Afghanistan’s chase began at a gallop as it usually does with Shahzad and Zazai opening, but it didn’t last. Aside from Najibullah Zadran’s defiant knock and Naib’s own obduracy down the order, the Afghanistan line-up batted bravely, won some new admirers, briefly threatened the improbable, and then lost.
For all the entertainment value, the chase, and indeed the game, was what Afghanistan’s fans would have feared. The wayward pace section with no appealing replacement, the rickety third leg of the spin tripod, the fragility of the batting, were enough to offset Nabi’s personal brilliance with the ball and Najibullah’s defiance with the bat.
It was, all told, exactly the sort of spirited but indisciplined and ultimately futile effort that is scripted for 'plucky minnows' in the traditional World Cup narrative. It is not a role Afghanistan had hoped to play.