ICC World Cup: Afghans' coup can lend the event the missing spark

A fearless batting display, followed by the spin trio’s magic, did the trick against champions England

Afghanistan cricket team (photo: X/@Mujeeb_R88)
Afghanistan cricket team (photo: X/@Mujeeb_R88)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Everyone loves an upset in sport. More so, when a quintessential underdog like Afghanistan manages to pull it off in style against reigning champions England and ignite that spark in the ICC World Cup, which had been missing somewhat after the first week of action. 

Ever since the Afghans were drafted as a full member nation by the International Cricket Council (ICC) alongside Ireland in 2017, the word ‘bravehearts’ had been sitting like a prefix before them. For a country ravaged by the Russian invasion and repeated Taliban incursions, no proper cricket stadium – not to speak of training facilities – it was a coup to tick all the boxes and finally make the cut. 

They produced the odd bunch of talented cricketers but unlike Ireland, who stole England’s thunder by chasing down a 300-plus total in the 2011 World Cup or stun Pakistan in the 2007 edition, Afghanistan did not have much to write home about in the 50-overs format. This year, they are playing in their third ODI World Cup on the trot but the only win for them so far came against Scotland back in 2015. 

It’s presumptuous to say if they can turn a corner after their spin trio choked England by a handsome margin of 69 runs, but the Indian conditions are surely helping their variety of cricket.  

If the Afghan batters were successful in posting back-to-back 270-plus totals against India and England attacks, the accomplished spin trio of Rashid Khan, canny Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb-ur-Rehman were simply relentless against the natural strokemakers of England and lured them to their doom. The seam attack has often been considered as a relatively weak link in the bowling line-up, but it was Fazalhaq Farooqi and Naveen-ul Haq who dealt two of the boydblows by prising out Jonny Bairstow and captain Jos Buttler.      

While Rashid is easily the most talked about face in Afghan cricket with his exploits in T20 cricket and global franchise leagues, both Mujeeb and the senior pro Nabi often go under the radar. Look up the ICC rankings for ODI bowlers and one will find that all the three feature in the top 10 with the lanky off spinner Mujeeb at number four, Rashid at six and Nabi at nine. 

Being handed the new ball in the powerplay to disturb the scoring rhythm, Mujeeb first unleashed a flipper to get rid of England's best batter as Root paid the price for playing the fuller delivery on his back foot. When he came back again, Mujeeb first castled Chris Woakes with a googly before dismissing topscorer Harry Brook with a carrom ball for 66.  

It was an exemplary performance from the bowlers with Mujeeb finishing with three for 51, Rashid 3/37 while Nabi was as stingy as hell with 2/16 from his six overs.   

Can they can provide an encore against New Zealand in the next game? Difficult to say while they are yet to play the likes of Pakistan, South Africa and Australia. However, one thing is for certain - all will be casting a wary eye on them after their Houdini Act in the capital on what ought to have been a quiet Sunday after all the hype over the India-Pakistan game. 

Keep them coming, Afghanistan! 

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