When Samiullah Shenwari chucked his bat and was unable to make connection to Mustafizur Rahman’s last ball delivery on Sunday night, TV pictures of dejected Afghanistan players painted the whole story on what could have been had he struck that boundary.
One big hit to the ropes would have been enough to keep them in the mix of facing defending champions India in Friday’s final. But pride will only be at stake in their final Super Four game against the Men in Blue.
While nothing will be riding on that match in what is effectively a dead rubber in Dubai, captain Asghar Afghan and his team-mates should hold their heads high on how they pushed teams all the way.
Prior to the three-run defeat to Bangladesh, Afghan reiterated the ICC’s latest Test nation are “there not to just play cricket but come to win matches”. They couldn’t win all their games but with two wins in four, stayed true to his words that Afghanistan were not just in the tournament to make up the numbers.
Surprisingly, Afghanistan are only playing in their second Asia Cup with minnows and qualifiers Hong Kong even playing in more with three appearances. But while many teams would have had to do their homework on the Associate side that isn’t the case for Afghanistan.
They have made headlines of their own with the likes of spin stars Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur-Rahman, more often than not, stealing the show. Not to mention their incredible team spirit that has propelled them to being a Test nation.
There were even whispers of Afghanistan being dark horses for the Asia Cup and it wasn’t to do with their talent. The fact they played so much cricket in this country was a big advantage with 19 wins in 35 ODIs.
The signs were already there when they crushed Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to top the group with a perfect record.
Two-time champions Pakistan nearly became their third victim only for Shoaib Malik to rescue the Men in Green in the last over to deny Afghanistan a historic ODI win over their neighbours.
While Bangladesh gained revenge to keep their hopes alive, the fact Afghanistan lost both games in the last over proves that Phil Simmons doesn’t have to make drastic changes to the squad.
Once again Afghanistan showed their strength with the ball with Rashid and Mujeeb taking eight and seven wickets already. But what has really shone in the last week has been their batting.
In four games, they have amassed 1007 runs after totals of 249, 255, 257 and 246. That is more than India have registered with 861 runs.
Although Afghanistan will lament the lack of runs, they should hold no fear when they face India on Tuesday. Opportunities like these don’t come around often and although there’s nothing to play for, Afghan and Co will certainly not make things easy for the finalists. After all, they have nothing to lose.
“We are not here just to play but to perform. Our players have got enough experience playing big international matches. They have performed well in leading cricket leagues so we are hopeful of doing well in this tournament as well,” the 30-year-old had told ANI News ahead of the tournament.
Despite falling to a last-gasp defeat against Pakistan in their Super Four campaign opener on Friday at Abu Dhabi, Afghan’s pre-tournament warning very much holds true.
The rapidly rising stars of international cricket had a lot to prove in the tournament given the fact that they failed to qualify for the 2016 edition. With the likes of Rashid Khan and Mujeeb-Ur-Rahman proving their mettle in T20 leagues around the globe in recent times, the Afghans had a lot going for them coming into the continental showpiece.
In the three matches Afghanistan have played so far in the Asia Cup, they have displayed a brand cricket which has been a throwback to the ODI cricket of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Asghar Afghan and his men have batted first in each of three matches they have played in the tournament. Their three games have all taken place at the Sheikh Zayed stadium in Abu Dhabi and the Afghans have used their experience of playing in UAE conditions previously to the hilt.
Starting slow and steady at the top of the innings, Afghanistan’s batsmen have looked to build solid partnerships for the large part before going full throttle in the death overs.
While Mohammad Shahzad, Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi have looked to consolidate at the top, the likes of Afghan and even Rashid Khan have looked to press on the accelerator in the latter stages.
Relying more on quick running between the wickets than the big shots, Afghanistan have managed to put up nearly identical scores in each of their three games.
In the first game against Sri Lanka, they posted 249 runs on the board. They followed it up with a 255-7 against Bangladesh before posting 256-7 in their narrow loss to Pakistan.
Once they have got a challenging total under their belt, their world-class array of spinners has done the rest on the slow and dusty track at Abu Dhabi.
Their bowling attack, especially the spinners, has been described as the best in the competition by pundits and even opposition players.
With Rashid Khan, Mujeeb-Ur-Rahman and Mohammad Nabi in tow, the Afghans have managed to tighten the noose around opposition batsmen by drying up the runs. Once the scoreboard pressure starts building, Afghanistan’s slower bowlers have thrived in spectacular fashion.
Sri Lanka were bundled out for 138 while Bangladesh were cleaned up for just 119 runs.
The Afghans have a supreme belief that they can defend any challenging total and the loss to Pakistan has been the only aberration in that regard. They have devised a perfect winning formula for UAE conditions and it will be hard for any team to get the better of them as the match against Pakistan just showed.
In the modern-era where going hell for leather from the very go has become standard for all teams in limited-overs cricket, Afghanistan have been a refreshing exception with their old-school approach. Their approach has been in stark contrast to teams like Sri Lanka and even Bangladesh who seem to have no definite game plan to their batting apart from trying to be aggressive from the start
Sri Lanka, in fact, only need to look at Afghanistan’s displays to decipher where they erred in the Asia Cup. Playing to their strengths has been Afghanistan’s modus operandi throughout the tournament and it is one that they could take them far.
It was a bittersweet ending for Hong Kong’s Asia Cup campaign as the minnow fell to a 26-run defeat at the hands of India at Dubai International Cricket stadium on Tuesday.
No one gave Anshuman Rath and his men a chance against the No2 ranked ODI side in the world after they were bundled out for just 116 runs in an eight-wicket loss to Pakistan two day ago at the same venue.
Having had lost their ODI status a month ago, the Associate nation were predicted to be the whipping boys of Group A with arch-rivals India and Pakistan expected to coast to the Super Four.
India and Pakistan have now advanced to the Super Four, but not in the manner they would have imagined in the former’s case.
On Tuesday, when Shikhar Dhawan and Ambati Rayudu were going great guns with the bat for India, the expected script seemed to be being followed.
However, that all changed after the 40th over of India’s innings with Hong Kong’s slower bowlers pulling things back nicely. Only 48 runs came for India in the final 10 overs but even a total of 285 was expected to be too big a mountain to climb for the Associates who had folded for just 116 against Pakistan.
That expected collapse didn’t come with Hong Kong openers Anshuman Rath and Nizakat Khan putting on a record 174-run stand for the opening wicket. For a big period, India were on the ropes with Hong Kong on course to pull off one of the most memorable upsets in cricket history.
Ultimately, India drew on their immense reserves to extinguish the minnows’ challenge but Rath’s men had undoubtedly caught the attention of the cricketing world with their never-say-die spirit. The skipper’s desperate dive to complete a tight single during his 174-run stand with Khan had embodied that spirit perfectly.
At the post-match, the 20-year-old captain’s mixed emotions after the defeat were clear to see.
“I think today was bitter-sweet. We really proved to the world what we can do. In saying that, we had India by the horns and really should’ve finished it off, if we are being hard on ourselves, which we should be,” Rath had stated.
For a country where cricket still remains largely an amateur sport, Hong Kong’s display against the global powerhouse of the game is even more impressive considering the fact that there are only three active cricket grounds in the autonomous territory.
In fact, one of those three is actually a football ground which doubles as a cricket stadium for international matches.
90 per cent of Hong Kong’s player pool comes from five teams in the Premier Division league. Only 13 players enjoy a full-time contract while plenty in the squad have to take up other jobs to support themselves financially.
With their Asia Cup campaign now over, the future remains dark for Rath and his men despite their exceptional showing. Such are the travails of Associate nations in ICC’s scheduling that their next ODI fixture might not come for another four years.
“We don’t know what the ICC has in plan for us. Hopefully, this performance helps. The next three or four years will be a little bit quiet for us, going into a little bit of a rebuild period. But hopefully ICC recognise that associate cricket has got a lot better and today we just proved that,” Rath had said on Tuesday.
With the capabilities and spirit Hong Kong have displayed in their brief moment under the spotlight, one can only hope that Rath’s plea does not fall on deaf ears.