On or off the field, Afghansistan have not had a good World Cup. They are yet to win a game, their dressing room seems in a state of near constant turmoil, their lead runs-scorer in ODIs is back in Kabul under protest, their coach publicly slating their erstwhile chief selector, who in turn has been demoted to junior team duty, and even before taking the field against India they were as good as out of the tournament. A string of heavy defeats raising the question of whether they even belonged there. They were duly knocked out by India on Saturday, or rather ruled out of contention for a semi-final spot, but in their last meaningful match, they put their illustrious opponents through the wringer, and at last showed some hint of what they are capable of.
It was the sort of performance that, had it come in their first match, it would have sent ripples of alarm through their remaining opponents. It was finally the Afghanistan that the tournament had been expecting rather than the shambles that turned up. Indeed, Afghanistan played as though the last few weeks had never happened.
Back to plan A with the bowling, the beleaguered Mujeeb ur Rehman entrusted with the new ball again, and against all run of form he delivered. Rohit Sharma drawn forward, pushing at one that drifted in, turned just enough and took the top of off. Five overs in and all going to plan for once. It would keep going more or less as per the planning for the next 75 overs.
The spin trio was back, Nabi stifling in the middle overs, his patience was rewarded with the prize wicket of Virat Kohli as a rare rash shot and a little extra bounce saw a top edged cut pouched at point. Rashid Khan looking every inch a bowler who had not been taken for 110 runs in his last match, and India, under real pressure for perhaps the first time in the tournament, wilted at the death.
With just 224 on the board, there was a chance. More than a chance. The game was Afghanistan’s to lose. And should they win, what then? If they could beat India, surely they could beat anyone? Could they still turn their whole tournament around? Were the odds against them any greater than when they were none from three and facing near-certain elimination at the qualifier? Well yes. In fact they were.
They were facing India for a start. As Hong Kong found to their cost at the Asia Cup, India simply don’t panic, even, or perhaps especially, when facing what looks like an extremely embarrassing impending defeat.
And impending it certainly seemed to be. Captain Naib, opening the batting again as he did the last time Afghanistan found themselves in such an almost hopeless predicament, saw off the new ball (no mean feat when new ball is delivered by Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami) and the early loss of his partner Hazratullah Zazai to a mad mow across the line was likely factored into his game plans. Naib’s own departure, top-edging a pull off Hardik Pandya, can not be said to have put India in control of the match, as Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi calmly set about building a partnership.
Unhurriedly picking singles off India’s wrist spinners where they could find them, putting the odd bad ball away, Shah and Hashmatullah’s third wicket partnership took them to three figures and looked set to push India ever further out of the game. But it didn’t last. If Afghanistan had finally produced the display that we’d been waiting for with the ball, it was now India’s turn. Specifically, it was Bumrah’s turn again. Brought back for a second spell in the 27th, it didn’t take him long to put India back in the hunt. A double wicket maiden in the 29th over removed both set batsmen, and suddenly it was anyone’s game, which in practice of course meant it was India’s.
Nabi wasn’t about to let them have it easy, a defiant unbeaten 52 took the game into the last over with three results still possible, but it was not to be. At the death Bumrah returned again, with Shami. Yorker after yorker. It took arguably the best display of death bowling the tournament has seen to deny Afghanistan, and a hat-trick for Shami to boot.
What you might call a competitive match in fact.
Had it been their first, it would have been quite a marker to lay down. Had it been their last, a fine finale. It’s not either though of course. They may be eliminated, but Afghanistan have three more games to play in this tournament.
They are not alone in that of course, barely over the half-way mark of the interminable group stage of this tournament, the semi-finalists are all but decided. Outside of the current top four, no team has a better than one in ten chance of making the semis if one believes the betting markets. That has in fact been true of all but Bangladesh for almost a week already. Yet it is an entirely predictable perversity of the format that teams linger on after they are effectively or even, as in Afghanistan’s case now, arithmetically eliminated.
That prospect, though, looks somewhat less terrible than it did on Saturday, when it looked as though Afghanistan’s World Cup would be the sporting equivalent of a nervous meltdown played out very publicly over the course of several weeks. At least on the field they have reclaimed some pride. From here on that’s all they have left to play for. But pride is not nothing, and Afghanistan have a lot to make good.