It was a comfortable win. A clinical win. Afghanistan looked on top from the second ball, which was bowled wide and back of a length from the returning Lasith Malinga, and was slashed up over backward point for four by Mohammad Shahzad. The Afghanistan team stayed on top more-or-less throughout.
Some admirable patience and application from their young middle order — most notably a well-compiled 72 from Rehmat Shah — was helped by some occasionally sloppy Sri Lankan fielding. A late burst of runs at the death courtesy the tail and Rashid Khan took them to 249 even as Thisara Perera fought back with the ball.
Even as Dhananjaya de Silva and Upul Tharanga constructed a careful half-century partnership for the second wicket after Mujeeb Ur Rahman’s second-ball wicket had sent Kusal Mendis back to the pavilion for no score, the oppressive weight of ten as-yet unbowled overs from Rashid loomed over the innings like a gathering thunderhead.
It’s been argued before that Afghanistan tend to wait too long to introduce Rashid, yet there’s equally a sense that the young leggie has a unique ability to induce wickets before even bowling a ball — through sheer pressure of anticipation. By the time he bowled his first over, de Silva and Tharanga’s partnership had already been broken by means of a needless run-out. With his fifth ball — which defied Perara as he tried to sweep — he broke another partnership, this time a 36-run stand for the third wicket. Tharanga went in the next, gifting his wicket to Gulbadin Naib with a chip into the hands of skipper Asghar Afghan.
He would not be the last to throw his wicket away. In fact, Angelo Mathews arguably gave away two — first running out Shehan Jayasuriya and then lofting Nabi down Rashid’s throat at long on just as he and Thisara had almost batted Sri Lanka back into the game. The remaining four wickets went almost as soft, bowled out 91 short. They bowed out of the match and the tournament, but this was not just a beleaguered Sri Lanka side melting down under the weight of their own insecurities. They were outplayed.
A 250-run target is serious scoreboard pressure at Abu Dhabi, all the more so in the face of an Afghan slow bowling attack bringing both reputation and execution to the table. It is something peculiar to the game of cricket that the No 10 ranked side in the world beating the No 8 should be seen as a huge shock or upset, yet so it will be termed. Even now that Afghanistan have taken their place as a full-member, the old tropes persist. Sri Lanka are “daunting” and “established,” Afghanistan “brash” and “courageous.” That’s not what we saw on the field, nor should we have expected to.
Sri Lanka may have been five-time champions and Afghanistan relative newcomers, but a storied history does not add runs, and a venerable tradition takes no wickets. This was a team in winning form and playing effectively in home conditions against a side in decline coming off the back of a mauling at the hands of Bangladesh. The Afghans may not have been favourites heading into the game, but they were certainly no underdogs. And if some fans and commentators saw them that way, their opponents did not, indeed if teams have been guilty of underestimating the Blue Tigers in the past, Sri Lanka, if anything, looked almost overawed.
Their hapless running was by turns timid and suicidal, the fade-brained batting alternated between the premeditated and the indecisive. It’s an easy point to score of course, but had it been an Associate side putting on such a display a deluge of patronising nonsense about one-sided matches and diluted standards would surely follow.
In the broader view though, Sri Lanka’s woes could easily have been Afghanistan’s. Sri Lanka are struggling to replace a golden generation, and the shoulders that have carried Afghanistan from obscurity to Test status are likewise starting to sag. Afghan, who captained Afghanistan in their first ever international back in 2004, has not crossed the 50-run mark in well over a year. The ebullient Shahzad is not the force he was, the days of the fiery pace pairing of Hassan and Shapoor are in the past.
Yet despite vocal criticism of perceived bed-blocking and nepotism in selection from fans (and indeed in, as the case of Noor Ali Zadran this week, players) there are signs of rejuvenation in the Afghan side, and the younger players establishing themselves in the side are more than the equal of their predecessors. It’s easy to forget that Rashid, now a global superstar, made his debut well after Afghanistan’s breakthrough to the big time, having never played in a World Cricket League match. He and the still-younger Mujeeb went from debut to Afghanistan’s front-line spinners almost immediately.
A similar story can now be seen in the batting, as the 25-year-old Rahmat Shah was the lynchpin on Monday, comparative youngsters like Ishanullah and Hashmatullah Shahidi have started to outscore their senior teammates. The manner they went about compiling the winning total, on a tough batting surface against what remained a world-class (if under-performing) attack speaks to a different sort of Afghan batsman, shaped by years of professional coaching and exposure that the first generation had to do without, and is perhaps a sign of things to come.
Explosively cavalier shot-making, hot-blooded pace, courage, charisma and collapses have been the trademarks of Afghan cricket in the past, and it has made for a compelling brand. We likely haven’t seen the last of any of those yet, but today’s Afghanistan shows us a hint of something else as well. Confidence, control and professionalism.
A bit more boring, perhaps, but better.