They made it look easy in the end, and the swagger is back.
What had looked impossible was suddenly inevitable. West Indies, who had taken on the role of favourites early in the tournament, stuttered and then stalled in the first innings in the face of Mujeeb Ur Rehman, stumbling to 204 all out. Jason Holder, the Windies captain and the rock upon which their campaign was built, was run out without facing a ball. Rashid Khan claimed his 100th ODI wicket along the way.
Mohammad Shahzad — in spring-loaded, clockwork form — set about the chase with furious capanean exuberance, and before 20 overs had been bowled, the result was a foregone conclusion. There was no ebb or flow to the final of the World Cup Qualifier. Afghanistan were on top from the very first ball, and stayed there til the very last — which was flayed for six over long off by Mohammad Nabi, who had put the previous two on the roof. Afghanistan claimed the mantle of champions, as they had claimed their place at the 2019 World Cup two days before, with all the assured nonchalance of someone picking up his coat at the end of a party.
But the tournament has been no cakewalk for the Afghans. Three weeks earlier, the winning captain, Asghar Stanikzai, was in hospital with appendicitis and Afghanistan were sliding to a defeat against Scotland in their opening game. Rashid, as stand-in skipper, looked lost in the field. And the burdens of captaincy seemed to do little to help his bowling either as Calum MacLeod made easy fodder of him and the rest of the Afghan attack, an unbeaten 157 seeing the Scots to a comfortable win.
In the first innings, Brad Wheal and Richie Berrington had exposed the fragility of the Afghan top order — a problem that would recur throughout the tournament — with Nabi and Najibullah called upon to salvage the innings from the middle order. Shahzad would compound the problem against hosts Zimbabwe in their next match, slamming his bat into the turf in frustration after falling to Tendai Chartara and earning himself a two-match suspension as a result.
Nabi would marshall a middle order fight-back, and yet again it would not be enough. Afghanistan would collapse from 163/4 to 194 all-out, and fall three runs short in the chase. And there was worse to come.
Rashid’s captaincy career would start with a hat-trick of defeats, the final one coming against Hong Kong, who would go on to finish last in the tournament. Anshuman Rath’s 65 would lay the foundation for Hong Kong, and Tanwir Afzal’s late cameo would get them to 241, with an afternoon shower leaving the Afghans facing a revised target of 226 in 46 overs. By then however, they were already six wickets down, with Ehsan Khan this time responsible for the top order’s woes. They would get nowhere near the target. Despite a defiant 40 from Dawlat Zadran at No 9, Afghanistan would come up 30 runs short. Winless, with just one game to go in the Group Stage, they looked dead and buried.
With just one match to go, they needed more than just a win; they needed an inordinate amount of luck even to reach the Super Sixes, the final appearing impossibly distant. The bookmakers agreed, with the odds of the pre-tournament favourites even reaching the final, much less winning it, having slipped to 33/1. From there on out, however, everything would go their way.
Rashid’s first win as captain by rights should have been a mere consolation victory, though it was at least a convincing one. The stand-in skipper himself seemed to rediscover some form, taking three wickets as he and Nabi spun Nepal out for 194, and striking a brisk 21 off 14 after promoting himself to open to set the tone for a comfortable chase.
That could easily have been the end of it however. With just two points from four matches, Afghanistan’s only hope of progression was a three-way tie at the bottom of the group, needing Nepal to beat Hong Kong (but not by too much) to see them through on net run-rate.
Nepal’s teenage prodigies came through for them. Hong Kong could find just 17 runs off 10 overs of Sandeep Lamichanne’s leg-spin at the cost of three wickets, including the key scalp of Rath, as they were bowled out for 153. The 15 year-old Rohit Kumar Paudel, to whom Stanikzai had gifted a bat, struck an unbeaten 48 to seal the win after Nepal had stumbled to 66/5. The Afghans were on the sidelines cheering him on.
It was the first of several results to go their way, only some of which came in matches they were involved in. With no points to carry through to the Super Sixes, they knew they would need three wins in a row. They also knew they would need more than that. They got it all. They handed the Windies their first defeat of the tournament, with Rashid at the crease at the end as they overhauled the Windies' 198 in a nervous chase. They saw off the UAE five days later, in Stanikazai’s first match back at the helm.
It shouldn’t have been enough, really. Scotland and Zimbabwe, both on five points, needed only one win each to claim passage to the final. Both would be cruelly denied. Scotland especially deserved better; Andy Balbirnie’s century cost them the match against Ireland after he had been plumb LBW on 1. A worse decision against Richie Berrington put them behind DLS par against the Windies just before the heavens opened.
But if luck was against the Scots, it was undoubtedly with the Afghans. Zimbabwe, after narrowly succumbing to Windies (in a match that also featured an inexplicable non-no-ball decision going against them) still needed only to beat the UAE to clinch the remaining spot in the final. Rohan Mustafa’s men, arguably abetted by the rain, broke the hosts’ hopes at Harare Sports Club.
There were just three runs in it in the end, but that was more than enough for Afghanistan. Mohammad Naveed’s 10-ball 22 just before the innings-ending thunderstorm as well as his new-ball burst of 2/15 in four overs, including two decisive overs at the death, was the difference between the sides in the end, and he put Afghanistan’s fate back into their own hands.
By the time they played Ireland, it was all forgotten. They just needed a win, and a win that they would get. Rashid was back at his best, setting up Balbirnie beautifully for the first of his three wickets. Ireland seemed cowed as they trudged to a modest 209/7 in their 50 overs, with the hunger for victory never really showing in their demeanour. Shahzad and Gulbanin Naib put on an 86-run opening stand off 100 balls — this being the first time Afghanistan mustered more than 28 for the first wicket in the tournament. Shahzad hit 54 off 50 balls like a batsman in his prime, and Ireland never got close to getting back in the match.
It was the sort of game, in short, that Afghanistan had no right to be playing. A team that ought to have been long gone, in the midst of a dubious run of form, owing their shot at the final as much to Naveed and Paudel as anyone in Afghan blue jersey. They came out on the field as though they had already won, and merely had to take some wickets and score some runs as a means of informing their opponents of the fact.
Objectively, Afghanistan have under-performed at this tournament. Looking back, they got lucky. But Afghanistan won’t be looking back.