Upsets have long been a part of the World Cup whether it was Sri Lanka, then a non-Test nation, beating India back in 1979, Zimbabwe seeing off Australia in 1983 or Ireland defeating Pakistan in 2007.
But the chances of Afghanistan joining that proud list at this year’s edition appear to be receding fast. Theirs is one of the great fairytale stories of modern sport, with cricket introduced to the war-torn country by returning refugees who had learnt about the game in camps in neighbouring Pakistan.
Twenty years ago, the idea of Afghanistan competing at a World Cup would have seemed outlandish. Yet such has been their progress they are now a Test nation and are appearing in their second World Cup.
But this edition has been a chastening experience for Afghanistan, with the qualifiers having lost all four of their matches ahead of their daunting clash against hosts England at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
For all the talent of spinners such as Rashid Khan, Afghanistan have not put enough runs on the board – a problem exemplified by their failure to chase down 187 in 41 overs against Sri Lanka.
Afghanistan have not always helped their own cause in other ways as well. Asghar Afghan, their long-serving skipper, was stripped of the captaincy leading up to the World Cup.
Their last match of the tournament, against South Africa, saw Najibullah Zadran – who scored the team’s only half-century in an opening loss to reigning champions Australia – was inexplicably omitted.
Meanwhile, Mohammad Shahzad, Afghanistan’s experienced wicketkeeper-batsman, was sent home early from the tournament with a knee injury, only to insist upon his return that he would have regained full fitness within a few days.
Modern video analysis means that few players are ‘unknown’, reducing the chances of shock outcomes.
‘Looking for the spin’
England beat Afghanistan by nine wickets in a warm-up match, a result that disguised how watchful they were against Rashid’s leg-spin. But a used pitch, which should assist Afghanistan’s spinners, will be in operation in Manchester.
“We are looking for spin, every game,” a smiling Gulbadin Naib, the Afghanistan captain, told a pre-match press conference at Old Trafford on Monday. “Spin is key for Afghanistan, the last three years, how we play our cricket. If there’s a little bit of spin there, maybe it’s a good day for Afghanistan.”
England captain Eoin Morgan said he was right to remain wary of Afghanistan. “They are a strong side and I’ve said before that they will beat teams at this World Cup,” Morgan said.
“They haven’t done it yet, so that makes the game a tougher challenge. Their three spinners are their strongest component. It’s a challenge we’ll have to overcome. Look over to their nets and they are practising against quicks, while in our net we’re practising against spin. It’s a challenge for both sides.”
The relentless nature of an round-robin World Cup format has worked against Afghanistan. One justification used by the International Cricket Council for cutting the number of teams at a World Cup to 10 was to reduce outright mismatches.
“We’re learning,” said Naib. “It’s a tough format for us, especially here in the World Cup. We are looking to win matches, trying to make some good upsets. But it’s a tough tournament – it’s high-class, world-class cricket.”
[Inputs from AFP]
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