T20 World Cup: Pakistan have Afghanistan obstacle to overcome

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Pakistan’s Shaheen Shah Afridi bowls against India in Dubai. — M. Sajjad
Pakistan’s Shaheen Shah Afridi bowls against India in Dubai. — M. Sajjad

Mumbai - Everybody on the circuit knows the threat Mohammad Nabi's side hold out for even the best teams

By Ayaz Memon

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Published: Fri 29 Oct 2021, 12:17 AM

Two successive wins have made Pakistan’s passage into the last four relatively easy, but there’s an obstacle that still has to be overcome. Afghanistan are certainly not among those favoured to win the title, but everybody on the circuit knows the threat they hold out for even the best teams.

The fact that they were in the main draw of the World Cup while more established teams like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh had to go through the qualifying rounds shows the rapid strides Afghanistan have made in the sport, and particularly the T20 format. This was in evidence in their first match when they thrashed Scotland by a whopping margin.

In batting and bowling, the Afghans were irrepressible, showing skill, intent and ambition. Mohammad Shahzad, Hazratullah Zazai, Najibullah Zadran, Rahmanullah Gurbaz flayed the Scotland attack. By the time the innings ended, there were 190 runs on the board. If that suggested a batting track, Scotland were in for a shock. Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rashid Khan had the batsmen in a tizzy with their treacherous spin bowling skills, and Scotland were bundled out for a measly 60.

Afghanistan’s win was as comprehensive as any seen in the tournament so far, and although it came against a weak team, they gave enough warning about their areas of strength and overall potential which wouldn’t have been lost on the Pakistan team management.

Essentially, the danger for Babar Azam and his team comes from Afghanistan’s spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and captain Mohammad Nabi. The first two named are attacking, wicket-taking bowlers, loaded with superb skills and mystery, while Nabi, with his flattish off-spin, can be miserly with his economy rate.

The problem for Afghanistan is in their batting and pace bowling. Neither has much heft.

While the batting clicked against Scotland, does it have the wherewithal against the pungent pace and swing skills of Shaheen Shah Afridi and Haris Rauf, or the tight control of spinners Imad Wasim and Shadab Khan, backed up by the vast experience Mohammad Hafeez if needed?

In the years since they’ve made their international debut, the major factor in Afghanistan’s successes has been how the spin troika, particularly Rashid Khan, has fared. Their pace bowlers have been hard triers, but only modestly good: and that against less formidable teams like Pakistan.

A thumping 10-wicket victory over India followed by a five-wicket win over New Zealand have made Pakistan the team to beat in the tournament. The second victory may have been less authoritative than the first, but was no less important in the march towards a place in the knockouts.

It showcased the good form and value of players other than Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Shah Afridi, who had bagged the honours when beating India. Against New Zealand, Asif Ali’s whirlwind knock and Shoaib Malik’s assured, astute approach pulled the team out of a crisis of sorts.

In the bowling, Haris Rauf, quick through the air in contrast to Afridi’s late swing prowess, kept the Kiwis total to a modest level just when it appeared that the situation might spin out of control. Spinners Shadab and Imad were excellent too, giving Pakistan’s attack depth, variety and potency to harry all opponents.

There were some question marks about Pakistan’s selection and preparation before the tournament began. But in the two matches they’ve played yet, such compunctions have proved to be unfounded. Babar’s calm influence as captain has also been a factor in the team putting up a cohesive, focused performance in both matches.

So, while they are a spirited bunch, and striving hard to raise their game at the international level, Afghanistan would have to perform extraordinarily well — and Pakistan diabolically poorly — for the result to be anything other than what everybody expects.

Ayaz Memon is an Indian sports 
writer and commentator

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