Afghanistan barely made it to the World Cup. Back in March, three games into the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, they were none from three in the group stages and on the brink of elimination. They had just lost to Scotland, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong in succession, their captain - Asghar Afghan - was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy, and they had just one group stage match against Nepal remaining, needing a big win and a lot of luck to sneak into the Super Six stage.
They would come back to win the tournament. In fact, they wouldn't lose another game. They kept their hopes alive with a win against Nepal, who would go on to beat Hong Kong in their final group match to allow Afghanistan through on net run rate on a three-way tie. Mujeeb ur Rehman's 3-33 and Rahmat Shah's 68 underpinned a 3-wicket win over West Indies in their first Super Six match, and Stanikzai would return against doctor's advice to lead his side to the title, comfortably beating the UAE, Ireland and West Indies again in the final to secure their World Cup berth.
Yet it's hard to say Afghanistan carry much momentum into the World Cup, in fact, they have the look of a team in turmoil. Despite leading a successful qualification campaign and topping the run-scoring table in Afghanistan's latest ODI series against Ireland, Asghar was unceremoniously relieved of the captaincy ahead of the tournament, apparently owing to clashes over selection policy, over the objections of senior players such as Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi.
Chief selector Dawlat Ahmadzai played down expectations ahead of the tournament, telling PTI that the Afghans would be targetting a semi-final spot at best, treating the tournament almost as an experience-building exercise under Naib’s leadership; “We made the decision not just thinking about this World Cup, we are thinking about the 2023 edition. We will be getting 10 matches with full members, and we feel it will provide perfect training for the new captain.”
A semi-final spot would be a remarkable achievement for Afghanistan, yet it remains a strange goal to set. Objectively, winning the five or six games out of nine that Afghanistan will realistically need to make the semi-finals is probably a tougher ask than winning another two in a row to then take the trophy.
Likewise, the idea of building toward the next World Cup cycle seems at odds with a selection policy that appears to be based at least as much on seniority as potential. The touring party headed to England under new skipper Gulbadin Naib features some eyebrow-raising inclusions from Afghanistan’s old World Cricket League days, and for many of the players in a rather nostaligic-looking squad this World Cup likely represents something of a last hurrah on the global stage.
Hamid Hassan, the fan-favourite fast bowler who has made a surprise return for the tournament, has already confirmed he will be retiring from ODIs after the World Cup. For veterans like Samiullah Shinwari, Noor Ali Zadran, Afghan himself and perhaps even Mohammad Nabi, this could also be their final turn on the global stage.
It is telling that the veteran Nabi aside, it is the players who have come into the squad since Afghanistan’s previous (and thus far only) appearance at the 50-over World Cup four years ago, that provide the most cause for optimism. The young spinners Mujeeb and Rashid are of course the focus of much expectation among Afghan fans (and consternation among their opponents) but also on the batting card it is the belligerent Mohammad Shahzad (who was controversially omitted in 2015 on fitness grounds) and his still more bellicose opening partner Hazratullah Zazai together with Rahmat Shah and even Hashmatullah Shahidi that will be causing the greatest anxiety for opposition bowlers ahead of the tournament.
Though both the Afghan batting and above all spin section is appreciably stronger than it was in 2015, the seam attack of Hassan, Dawlat Zadran and Aftab Alam consists entirely of 2015 veterans, and with neither Hassan nor Zadran looking quite the bowlers they were, it has arguably gone backward in the interim.
In there most recent (and at time of writing only) warm-up match, facing Scotland in a rain-shortened game in Edinburgh, Afghanistan scraped a 2-run win on DLS after conceding 325 in the first innings. They were without their core spin trio, Nabi, Rashid and Mujeeb all still on IPL duty, but the seam attack's lack of penetration will have given them pause.
A similarly close-fought last wicket, last over win against the Scots at Dunedin was to be Afghanistan’s only win at the last World Cup, and since then they have a losing record in ODIs against most of their opponents for this one. Of their 23 ODIs against other World Cup sides, they have won only 7; three each against the West Indies and Bangladesh and one against Sri Lanka at last year’s Asia Cup, as well as a memorable tie against India at the same tournament.
Of the seven, it is the win against Sri Lanka, who they face in their second match, that is arguably the model from which a winning formula for Afghanistan might be derived; Shah and Shahidi providing the stability in the batting around which their flashier seniors can play their shots, seamers playing the foil to spin – Mujeeb attacking with the new ball whilst the weight of Rashid’s un-bowled overs builds pressure in anticipation of his introduction.
It’s a formula that has worked well against weaker sides in spinning conditions, whether it will be as effective in England against top five teams remains to be seen. Though English wickets are not the seamer’s paradise they once were, neither will they be as helpful to the spin-reliant Afghani attack as Abu Dhabi or Dehra Dun. To stand a reasonable chance of making the semi-finals, Afghanistan will likely need five wins from their nine matches. Even at their best, that would be a tall order, and few think this Afghanistan represents their best. Nonetheless, the ingredients are there for a few upsets. Naib’s side will fancy their chances against Sri-Lanka, Bangladesh and in their final match against the West Indies, all of whom they have beaten before. In their other six matches, they will start as underdogs, though that label has rarely fazed them in the past.
Afghanistan World Cup 2019 Schedule:
Date Day Match Venue
June 1 Saturday: Afghanistan vs Australia Bristol County Ground
June 4 Tuesday Afghanistan vs Sri Lanka Cardiff Wales Stadium
June 8 Saturday Afghanistan vs New Zealand County Ground
June 15 Saturday Afghanistan vs South Africa Cardiff Wales Stadium
June 18 Tuesday Afghanistan vs England Old Trafford
June 22 Saturday Afghanistan vs India Hampshire Bowl
June 24 Monday Afghanistan vs Bangladesh Hampshire Bowl
June 29 Monday Afghanistan vs Pakistan Headingley
July 4 Thursday Afghanistan vs West indies Headingley