After controversially sacking their captain just two weeks ago, Afghanistan's selectors have again raised eyebrows by naming a squad dominated by a veteran old guard, preferring to put faith in experienced old campaigners over younger talents.
New skipper Gulbadin Naib, who replaced Asghar Afghan at the helm of the ODI side earlier this month over the objections of several senior members of the side, is one of no less than six players whose international careers reach back at least as far as 2008, when Afghanistan were contesting World Cricket League Division 5 against the likes of Japan and Botswana.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the release that announced the squad on Monday was the return of the iconic Hamid Hassan, the exuberant rambo-headband-sporting quick who became an instant fan-favourite at the last World Cup. Hassan has been dogged by injury since a fateful knee injury sustained while fielding for a combined Associate and Affiliate XI against England at Dubai in 2012. He was out of the side since 2016 and hasn't even played domestic cricket since 2017.
Together with Hassan, Naib and Afghan; Samiullah Shenwari, Mohammad Nabi and Noor Ali Zadran all featured in the squad that travelled to Jersey at the outset of Afghanistan's long march through the WCL's Divisions alongside Dawlat Ahmadzai - now chief selector. Ahmadzai's faith in his old team-mates leaves no room for young prospects such as Shafiqullah Shafaq, Darwish Rasooli, Zahir Khan, Qais Ahmad or Usman Ghani, and indeed the side headed to England is arguably the most conservative that Afghanistan have fielded in years. The squad features only two players - Mujeeb ur Rehman and Hazratullah Zazai - to have made their debut in the last three years, and more than half the side have been playing for a decade or more.
Conservative as it is, the selection does little to answer existing questions on how exactly the Afghan side will fit together. The core of the side at least is clear, selection questions still centre around who to play around Afghanistan's trio of spinners, around which a revolving carousel of batsmen and seamers has rotated in an out of the side in recent years. It is undoubtedly a solid core though, Mujeeb, Rashid and Nabi the Afghans arguably boast the world's most intimidating slow-bowling attack. Rashid and especially Nabi offer enough with the bat that they might be considered on batting merits alone.
Thirty overs of quality spin is nothing to be sniffed at even if conditions in England offer only limited assistance, and indeed wayward or tepid seam bowling is likely to be more costly than tidy spin on the hitting-friendly tracks that are typical in England nowadays. Rashid's pace, flatter trajectory and mere reputation as the leading white-ball spinner in the world will likely stand him in good stead, though with the fame of course comes the attention of analysts, and Rashid may now be the most studied bowler in the game's history.
During Afghanistan's torrid qualifying campaign, Scotland's Calum MacLeod showed that a batsman willing to take Rashid on with a cross bat, and the skill to reliably execute the (reverse) sweep can score rapidly off Khan, if not without risk. It remains to be seen if Naib will persist with Afghan's preferred tactic of holding Rashid's overs in reserve until well into the second half of the innings, where the prospect of his spell can put pressure on batsmen to target the rest of the attack and allow Rashid to produce wickets without even touching the ball. Mujeeb has often profited the most from the effect, generally operating with the new ball in partnership with a seamer at the start of the innings, with Nabi functioning more in a holding role through the middle overs.
If Hamid is indeed back to full fitness and bowling like his old self Afghanistan's attack could be said to be shaping up well, and in Dawlat Zadran, Naib has a proven performer to act as a foil for the threat of the spin attack. With Naib capable of stepping in to provide some serviceable medium pace and Aftab Alam ready to step up if need be, the seam department is not necessarily Afghanistan's biggest worry, though that could change should Hamid break down again or Zadran's chronic shoulder trouble resurfaces. Should both get into difficulties, Afghanistan's attack will be alarmingly reliant on spin in what remains traditionally less than conducive conditions. Yet, the biggest obstacle to a surprise run to the semis remains the brittle batting.
Mohammad Shahzad is an ebullient force at the top of the order, unlikely to be intimidated by the illustrious opposition or the grandness of the stage, and with Hazratullah Zazai partnering him at the top of the order, Afghanistan have an opening pair that could as easily see them on 90/0 in the powerplay as 9/2 in the second over. If former skipper Afghan carries his recent form into the tournament he could well act as a backstop or stabiliser should his side's opening gambit backfire, but failing that Rahmat Shah - the new Test captain and only constant selection outside of the former skipper and spin trio in recent years - will likely have to act as anchor.
Naib may be tempted to take opening responsibilities on himself again, with Zazai dropping down as lower middle-order hitter, though that role has generally fallen to Najibullah Zadran - a belligerent leftie and reliable purveyor of quickfire 20-30 run cameos. More likely though Naib will slot into the middle order where and when he feels he is most needed, either alongside the steady-looking young Hashmatullah Shahidi, or the veteran Samiullah Shinwari with fellow old campaigner Noor Ali Zadran being another option to open.
Of the two, Shinwari is the most likely starter, though his contributions at the Qualifier and during the recent Ireland series were modest. His variable leg-spin is generally surplus to requirements these days, but he has been in fine form with the bat in domestic cricket, topping the run tables with 398 runs at 79.6 and a strike rate over 120 in the Ghazi Amanullah Khan Regional One Day competition. Conversely, Noor Ali's role in the side is likely as much of wise head and mentor as a back-up opener, having played just five ODIs for Afghanistan in the last 2 years and not once made it to double figures.
Yet for all the value of wise heads and experience, it shakes the notion that in choosing for such an almost nostalgic-looking squad Afghanistan’s selectors have either leaned too far towards the familiar or worse still picked players on seniority over talent or form. By leaving young talents such as Rasooli or Ghani at home, and eschewing even such unshowy but dependable junior players such as Javed Ahmadi, Afghanistan have only exacerbated their weaknesses.
With a collectively brittle batting line-up, and two physically brittle front-line seamers, the Blue Tigers will need more than a little luck to go their way both on and off the field. They remain reliant on the spin trio that is the core of the side, around which a flashy but potentially flimsy team takes shape. Yet it is a core that many other sides at the tournament would envy, and though Naib’s side may head to England as underdogs, it is as unfancied outsiders that they have traditionally played their best cricket.
Afghanistan Squad: Gulbadin Naib (C), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Noor Ali Zadran, Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Afghan, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Najibullah Zadran, Samiullah Shinwari, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran, Aftab Alam, Hamid Hassan and Mujeeb ur Rahman.
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