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A year to remember for Afghanistan, contrasting fortunes for Zimbabwe and Ireland

14 Jan 2019 CricBuzz

An exponential growth in limited-overs cricket amidst an uninspiring Test debut, a largely uneventful year despite a spirited entry into the five-day format, and a World Cup disappointment chief among several lacklustre shows - sum up the year 2018 for Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe respectively.

Despite being shown their place in the Test format by the top-ranked India, Afghanistan had many positives to take from 2018. That they defeated the Windies twice in the World Cup Qualifiers, including the final, should rank among their top achievements in the year. But more than that, it was their performance in the Asia Cup that highlighted how much Afghanistan have grown as a cricketing nation, and the spirited brand that they promise to bring to the World Cup next year.

For Ireland, who began the year with a flawless effort in the tri-nation series against Scotland and UAE, March was the moment of reckoning for the European nation with a World Cup Qualification carrot dangling in front of them. But their failure to go past the Super Six stage meant that their hopes went up in smoke, only that it didn't deter them from putting up quite the show in the Test against Pakistan, with the Asian side just about sneaking through with a five-wicket win. But with more defeats than victories across formats, it was yet again a story of them not quite delivering on promise.

A heart-breaking loss to UAE ended Zimbabwe's Qualifiers campaign, which came close on the heels of their losses in the tri-nation series featuring Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and repeated defeats to Afghanistan. Pakistan, Australia and later South Africa laid bare Zimbabwe's lack of resources which was the result of a contract fiasco between top players of the country and the board. A drawn Test series against Bangladesh late in the year provided Zimbabwe some respite in an otherwise disappointing year.

What went right

Afghanistan: With plenty written in recent years about Afghanistan's rise in the cricketing world, the World Cup prelude year was the right time for the Asian nation to show their weight. Having just about managed to make it to the Super Sixes of the Qualifiers, edging out Nepal and Hong Kong on basis of net run rate, Afghanistan needed to up their game to qualify for the main event. They did just that. White-washing Bangladesh in a T20I series and smooth sailing over Ireland in the limited-overs format set things up nicely for their Asia Cup campaign, where they proved how much of a scare they can give some of the top teams.

With big wins against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the group stages - the former causing the ouster of the Island Nation - Afghanistan made a statement that they weren't there to just make up the numbers. Their next two matches were close-fought encounters - against Pakistan and Bangladesh - where their opponents barely got through. And then the game against India - eventual champions of the Asia Cup - in which Afghanistan held them to a tie. Despite their inability to finish out games, their performances spoke volumes of their ability and spirit, which should hold them in good stead in the World Cup year.

Ireland: A Test debut against one of the top-ranked sides in the world might unnerve a few teams, but not Ireland who put all their first-class experience into action. Making best use of the home conditions, they had reduced Pakistan to 159 for 6 at one stage before the lower order bailed the visitors out of trouble. What followed was an inexperienced display with the bat as Ireland were bowled out for 130 in the first essay. Asked to follow on, they were staring down the barrel at 157 for 6. But they wouldn't go down without a fight. A brilliant rearguard from Kevin O'Brien and Stuart Thompson, with the former becoming the first Ireland centurion, to set a target of 160 for Pakistan, who huffed and puffed to victory.

Zimbabwe: That they managed to draw an away series in Bangladesh, securing their first overseas Test victory in 17 years, should give the team some encouragement going into 2019. Brendan Taylor aggregating more than 1000 runs across formats in his comeback season for Zimbabwe comes as another positive for the African team.

What went wrong

Afghanistan: For a team that is looking to challenge the top guns in the world, there were a few causes for concern for Afghanistan in 2018. One was their lethargic start in the Qualifiers and the other was their inability to come out on top in pressure situations during the Asia Cup. But their main worry would be their mis-match of a Test debut against India, with their batting letting them down badly. Focus on first-class cricket will be imperative for Afghanistan to make their mark in the longer formats.

Ireland: Barring four wins out of four attempts against Scotland and UAE, Ireland had a largely mediocre year without a single series win. The retirements of Niall O'Brien and Ed Joyce have left Ireland in a rebuilding phase, not ideal for a team that is eager to make its presence felt.

Zimbabwe: Their string of defeats and the Qualifiers disappointment aside, Zimbabwe's main problem in 2018 was the lack of personnel courtesy a contract issue with the board, which left the team acutely understaffed.

Top performer: Rashid Khan

With 70 wickets across international formats in 28 matches, including two five-wicket hauls, the Afghanistan legspinner yet again reinforced the fact that he ranks among the top spinners in the world at the moment. He finished as the top wicket-taker in ODIs in 2018, with 48 wickets at 14.45 and an economy of 3.89. In T20Is, he bagged 22 wickets at 8.68 and an economy of 6.36, finishing as the fourth highest wicket-taker in the year.

Biggest disappointment: Asghar Afghan

The 31-year-old Afghanistan skipper, known for his level-headed approach while batting, had a forgettable year. Across international formats, in 21 innings, he managed only 426 runs at 21.30 with a lone half-century to his name.

What does 2019 have in store?

For Afghanistan, they have the big World Cup to look forward to as they will be hoping to give the top sides a good run for their money, and probably have some surprise in store too. Meanwhile, both Afghanistan and Ireland can look forward to their first Test face-off against each other, in Dehradun from March 17. Ireland also have a busy home summer, playing a tri-series against the Windies and Bangladesh, an ODI against England, two ODIs against Afghanistan along with three ODIs and three T20Is against Zimbabwe.

Original Link: https://www.cricbuzz.com/cricket-news/105880/2018-cricket-review-afghanistan-zimbabwe-ireland-world-cup-qualifiers-test-debut

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