Three games, three defeats. Injury woes, captaincy questions, and all but out of contention. Afghanistan have been here before. At the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe last year they lost their first three matches in succession to Scotland, Zimbabwe and then Hong Kong, as then-captain Asghar Afghan was hospitalised with appendicitis. They would stage a remarkable turnaround in Zimbabwe, with a little help from Nepal whose win over Hong Kong allowed the Afghans to sneak out of the group stages on a single win. Afghan would return to lead his side to the title and book a trip to England.
But now, at the tournament itself, the prospects of another such comeback are remote, not least because Afghanistan’s troubles are clearly not confined to the field of play. On it, they have reverted to type. Plucky underdogs bringing flair and entertainment, but lacking for discipline, consistency and tactical nous, ultimately outclassed by more experienced sides. So it was against New Zealand again, the veteran Noor Ali Zadran and young gun Hazratullah Zazai getting them off to a brisk start, hitting 61 off the first ten overs, and Zazai putting Matt Henry deep into the stands over midwicket for the biggest six of the tournament so far. But it didn’t last.
The pair fell in the space of three balls, Rahmat Shah and Naib soon followed, the latter taking Afghanistan’s only review with him after edging behind off James Neesham, who would pick up his maiden ODI five-for in the ensuing collapse. Hashmatullah Shahidi cobbled together Afghanistan’s first half-century of the tournament without ever really looking convincing, except perhaps in comparison to what was happening at the other end as Neesham ran through the middle order.
172 was never likely to be defensible, though Aftab Alam gave them the best possible start by removing Martin Guptill with his first ball of the tournament. Alam would have a decent outing standing in for Dawlat Zadran, officially rested for this match but reportedly the latest addition to the Afghan growing injury list.
To that list can likely be added the name of Rashid Khan, the smiling face of Afghan cricket, who was last seen making his way unsteadily to the pavillion after taking an ugly blow to the head ducking into a lightning short ball from Lockie Ferguson that crashed into his helmet and then into the stumps. Two failed concussion tests kept him off the field for the rest of the match, and due caution may well see him sidelined for some time.
The trilateral spinning core around which Afghanistan’s hopes revolved is splintered, Mujeeb-Ur-Rehman is hopelessly out of form, dropped ahead of the New Zealand game and may not be risked again, at least for as long as Afghanistan remain in notional contention for a top-four finish.
With bowling stocks thus depleted, Afghanistan would likely have struggled to defend twice the total they managed, and compounding their bowling woes is the loss of Mohammad Shahzad, the ebullient keeper-bat — Afghanistan’s lead run-scorer in ODIs — sent home ahead of the game on the grounds of a knee injury picked up in their warm-up win against Pakistan, a victory which has proved to be the high point of Afghanistan’s World Cup campaign so far.
Shahzad’s reaction to being replaced in the squad by Ikram Ali Khil, however, points to an alarming degree of turmoil in the Afghan camp. In a video statement sent to Afghan press, Shahzad insisted he was fit, and had only found out that he had been dropped by reading the ICC press release after a training session on Thursday. On landing in Kabul, he again lambasted the ACB, telling reporters that after being ruled out of a second World Cup (he was dropped ahead of the 2015 edition in similar circumstances) he was considering retiring from international cricket.
The ACB subsequently issued a statement to the effect that a medical report had been submitted to the ICC confirming that Shahzad was indeed injured, carrying a strained anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee sustained in the Pakistan match. Indeed it is difficult to imagine the ICC event technical committee would have permitted Shahzad’s replacement without such supporting evidence, yet, at the very least it, speaks to a further breakdown in communication in the Afghan camp.
Such problems are hardly new, the unseemly ouster of Asghar Afghan as captain just weeks ahead of the tournament apparently coming as a surprise to senior players, including his T20I replacement Rashid, who found out about the decision second-hand and spoke out against it on Twitter. Head coach Phil Simmons was apparently unaware of Shahzad’s axing, as he had been of Afghan’s replacement. He himself took to Twitter after the New Zealand defeat to deny the assertion reportedly made by ACB Chair Azizullah Fazli that Simmons, who is due to step down after the World Cup, had requested a contract extension.
The politics of the Afghan board and dressing room can be difficult to follow even for insiders, but a flurry of personnel changes and public bickering suggest their on-field losing streak is hardly their only problem. Whilst Shahzad’s public denunciation has attracted the most headlines, in Afghanistan, a spate of new board members were announced, most notably former ACB Chair and current ambassador to Pakistan Atif Mashal, as well as Senator Gulalai Noor, presidential advisor Zia ul Haq Amarkhi, and housing minister Jawad Paikar. At the same time a “special management committee” has been appointed to oversee the Afghanistan Premier League, though details of its exact makeup are scarce.
Of more direct relevance, however, the Afghans have also swapped out their chief selector mid-tournament. Chief selector Dawlat Ahmazai, whose disagreements with Asghar Afghan reportedly contributed to the latter being stripped of the captaincy, has now himself been demoted to junior team selector and replaced by a new panel including former head coach Andy Moles and Mujahed Zadran. The announcement pointedly referred to Zadran as “national coach” hinting that Simmons has perhaps already been sidelined.
At the very least, all this amounts to a distraction that the beleaguered Afghanistan side could well do without. Heading into their fourth match of the tournament against the equally winless South Africa, arguably Afghanistan’s nearest rivals for “shambles of the tournament,” Saturday likely constitutes the last chance to stage a turnaround for Naib’s side.