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Gutsy Afghanistan achieve Simmons-endorsed equilibrium

30 Sep 2018 CricBuzz

Ravindra Jadeja has mistimed a pull shot and almost in synchronization, all Afghanistan players turn expectantly towards mid-wicket. For a split-second they're transfixed. All except Najibullah Zadran, who is sprinting in from the deep. He covers his ground, gets his palms right under the ball, and an eruption of emotions occurs. Afghanistan players run helter-skelter in celebration for a few seconds before deciding to move in the direction of Najubullah and converge mid-way. They've not won, but the feeling of triumph belongs to them on the night. A night that has helped them overcome, to an extent, two recent heartburns and given them their biggest result in ODIs, by their own admission.

It's been 11 eventful days for Afghanistan since their captain Asghar Afghan reckoned his team weren't in the Asia Cup to just make up numbers. Amidst a campaign of sleepwalking for India, an abysmal one for Sri Lanka, an encouraging one for Hong Kong and topsy-turvy one for the other two final aspirants - Pakistan and Bangladesh - Afghanistan have attained admirable consistency with both bat and ball.

The lack of experience in tense moments probably got the better of them twice - against Pakistan and Bangladesh - and cost them a place in the final, but an upgradation has already been attained through the exhilarating tie against India.

In January this year, Afghanistan hired a task master as head coach in Phil Simmons, who walked in and enlightened a bunch of cricketers who, admittedly, weren't aware of the level they were at. A lot of the current success at the Asia Cup, of competing hard against sides they will face in the 2019 World Cup in a few months time has been down to Simmons showing the way. In a cheerful post-match press conference, captain Asghar Afghan gesticulated animatedly to signify the impact that the West Indian has had on his team.

"Phil's excellent work has been that his combination with the team and the captain has been brilliant. The important thing he's done is he's understood what the team's level is. Previously we didn't understand at which level we were. When Phil came, he had played a lot of games against us. He showed us our level.

"Our level is here [gesticulates high], and we were thinking it was here [gesticulates low]. Important thing with Phil is that he's told us that our level is here [high] so you don't think it is here [low]."

What Simmons also did was he identified the problem area for Afghanistan that's kept them from raising their game, and challenged his players to sort it out. There was no ambiguity or a sugar-coated way of conveying that the batters need to step up and meet the bowlers at their level of skill, rather than bringing down the overall ability. And the players responded accurately.

Super Four Teams batting first and playing out 50 overs

Teams Batted first Batted all 50 overs Afghanistan 4 4 Pakistan 2 1 Bangladesh 3 1 India 1 1

Runs breakdown in phases in those games

Teams 1-10 Overs 11-40 Overs 41-50 Overs India 56 181 48 Pakistan 28 141 68 Bangladesh 32 137 77 Afghanistan [Average tally] 44 131 78.25

The high average score at the death for Afghanistan has been a result of a solid foundation through the middle-overs in each fixture. Their average returns between overs 11 to 40 is lesser than what each of the other three Super Four teams managed in their one match when they batted first and all 50 overs, but Afghanistan have reached the 40-over mark after having lost just three wickets on two occasions. Afghanistan's two best run-getters have been opener Mohammad Shahzad (268) and No. 5 batsman Hashmatullah Shahidi (263). Among batsmen who've scored 100-plus runs in the tournament so far, there are three more from Afghanistan players - which means five of the top-six batsmen have made good contributions in the tournament - a healthy sign of a batting renaissance.

This comes as such a refreshing change from Afghanistan's topsy-turvy World Cup qualifiers campaign that incredibly ended with them booking a spot for themselves in the tournament proper.

Afghanistan's qualifiers campaign began with a defeat in which the batters did little wrong, but the next two losses - to Zimbabwe and Hong Kong - were down to batting failures and put them on the brink of missing the showpiece event in England.

The bowlers - led by Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rashid Khan - pulled it all back spectacularly. Of the five wins on the trot, three came in chase of sub-200 totals that was thanks to the bowling effort. Even the victory against Ireland that sanctioned their berth in the 2019 World Cup was a result of the bowlers keeping the opposition down to 209, before Windies were beaten in the final, by chasing down 204.

Put in perspective then, Afghanistan's average score of 251.6 at the Asia Cup, where 250 has been considered a highly-defendable total. With those numbers, they've shown marked improvement in their ability to take on better bowling attacks than they usually face on a regular basis, and do so while batting first.

"Yes definitely, we have improved in our batting. Previously this was our weak area and we're working on it regularly. In Asia Cup it was okay but when we're going to the big mega event in the World Cup, we still need to improve this area because Asia and Europe [England] conditions are different so definitely we still need to work more on our batting. But it was good in this tournament, we have played well. Our batting has improved if you compare it to the previous, last couple of months," Afghan said.

Since the 2015 World Cup, Afghanistan have played 13 ODIs against India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and West Indies - five teams that will feature in the 2019 World Cup - and have managed six wins, five defeats, one tie and one No Result in those games.

"We will play with all these four members [Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India] in the upcoming World Cup. We now know where we should work on, our weaknesses and also [how to] convert it to our strength. Because this Asia Cup provided us with the chance [to figure out] where we need to work with the guys. We still have good time to prepare for the World Cup. But it was good that we have played with them in the Asia Cup, so we will be prepared more and come strong in the World Cup," Afghan reckoned.

Having ended their campaign on the high of holding India to a tie - even if it wasn't against a full-strength India - Afghan ventured into the what could've been territory, and induced a few laughters in the press conference.

"For us the hard luck was all our matches were in Abu Dhabi. If it was on this track [in Dubai], I can tell with confirmation that Afghanistan would've been in the final. So hamare saath thodi bewafayi huyi hai [it's been a little unfair]," he said.

So what will Afghanistan be at the next big tournament? A dark horse? A banana-peel-of-an-opponent? How about, favourites?

Afghan had the precise, and dramatic, answer:

"Khatre ki ghanti toh bhai hain hum, yaad rakho. [We're warning bells, remember that]."


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