ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP 2019
Afghanistan have failed to take early advantage in the first two matches of the tournament © Getty
Cricket, and indeed all sport, is littered with great tales of comebacks from seemingly impossible positions. France’s rugby union team overcame a 14-point deficit in a World Cup semi-final to beat the All Blacks in 1999. Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005 after being 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan. In 2013, Oracle Team USA won the America’s Cup sailing race after being 8-1 down. And who could forget the Ashes Test of 1981 at Headingley?
All great comebacks have gone down in sporting history. And there’s a reason for that. They are rare. Most teams who fall behind in sport, stay behind. They end up losing. The odd remarkable comeback aside, generally the team that sets the pace, wins the game. Which is why Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib is targeting better starts with both bat and ball as his side looks to register its first victory of this World Cup.
With the bat, Afghanistan were 77 for five against Australia and 57 for five against Sri Lanka. With the ball, their opponents have had at least 90 on the board before the first wicket has fallen. It is these slow starts which have cost Afghanistan, set them behind the eight-ball. No matter how well they have responded, whether through the partnership of 83 between Naib and Najibullah Zadran against Australia, or nine wickets for 57 runs against Sri Lanka, it hasn’t been enough to claw back from those poor starts.
Against New Zealand at Taunton on Saturday, beginning each innings well will be their focus. “If you look at the last game against Sri Lanka, we missed a lot of things at the start of the match and also starting our innings on the batting side,” Naib said the day before the match. “We just need a good start if you bowl or if you bat, so we keep the momentum for 10 overs at the start. If we do this, maybe it’s easier for us.”
Better starts with the bat might also mean Afghanistan get to use up their allotted overs, something they have failed to do so far in the tournament. They were bowled out inside 39 overs against Australia and inside 33 overs against Sri Lanka. For all their hitting power, the top order’s ability to construct longer innings, to stem the tide of wickets and then kick on has been lacking so far. It’s been a bit “six or out” and the lower-middle order has been left to pick up the pieces.
Interestingly, Naib suggested that might be because his team have been overawed by the big names in the opposition, playing the man not the ball. “If you go with the names, maybe it’s very difficult,” he said. “If you go with the ball or the bat, maybe it’s very easy. My plan for the boys is don’t look for the names, just play your cricket, just play the ball. If you survive 10 or 15 overs, maybe it’s totally different.”
For all their recent progress and their elevation to Test status, most of the Afghans don’t often play against the likes of Australia and New Zealand, most of them aren’t playing in T20 franchise leagues around the world. Games on the biggest stage against the most established countries are still relatively new experiences which will take time to adjust to. But as Naib alluded, Afghanistan have their place at the top table now. They deserve it. But it is time they realised the teams they are up against don’t need to be put on a pedestal. They need to be beaten.
They will be without Mohammad Shahzad in Taunton, their opener and wicket-keeper, who has been ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a knee injury. Although he didn’t make any impression with the bat in his two games, Afghanistan will miss his experience and his frivolity in the changing rooms. “It’s a big loss of our side,” Naib said. “Shahzad is a great player for Afghanistan. Very energetic. In the dressing room he’s very funny, he entertains the team. We will miss a lot of things. I’m really upset but it’s cricket.”
Shahzad’s loss means it is even more imperative that the team’s most important players stand up. Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, in particular, have had quiet starts to the tournament with both bat and ball but they will be coming up against their Sunrisers Hyderabad captain, Kane Williamson, in Taunton which should provide extra motivation.
An interesting sub-plot to the match will be in how much Williamson has learnt of Khan’s bowling during their time together in the IPL and how that informs the way he plays against him. “Rashid is not like the other bowlers,” Naib said. “It’s very difficult to pick him. Not only for Kane. It’s difficult for our batsmen and we’re playing against him in the nets. Rashid is very different, quick and fast. Doesn’t give you time to pick him.”
Given the way New Zealand came unstuck against Bangladesh’s spinners in their previous game at The Oval, Rashid, Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman will fancy their chances of making some inroads. It won’t matter, though, if Naib’s men are 50 for five with the bat or New Zealand get to 90 for no wicket when they bowl. Afghanistan need better beginnings. They can’t keep playing with one hand tied behind their back.