Team Afghanistan preview: Ready to rock the boat

This will be the second World Cup appearance for Afghanistan — it had featured in the 2015 edition — and on paper, the side looks pretty balanced with a perfect blend of youth and experience.

Capable of causing a few upsets: A file picture of Afghanistan’s Asghar Stanikzai (left) with Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi (right) during a training session in Bengaluruin June, 2018. The Afghanistan team had a 21-day long training session in South Africa and is touring Scotland and Ireland to get enough match practice before the mega event.   -  K. Murali Kumar

A couple of hours after the national selectors decided to axe Asghar Afghan as the skipper, two of Afghanistan’s star cricketers — Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan — expressed their disappointment over the decision. With barely a couple of months left for the World Cup, the two seasoned campaigners did not feel it was the right time to part ways with a long-serving captain.

The tweets put out by the two did create controversy, with many in the cricketing fraternity supporting them.

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But the Afghanistan Cricket Board and its chief national selector, Dawlat Ahmadzai, were confident their decision to name Gulbadin Naib as the new skipper for the World Cup was not taken in haste.

“Afghanistan is a treasure of cricketing talent and now, we are in a position to go for transition. And you know, Asghar will not give us World (Cup). So, we went for a better choice and (better) option than Asghar,” Ahmadzai told Sportstar, soon after picking the new captain.

He also made it clear that Gulbadin will be able to manage things as he comes in with immense experience. “Gulbadin has been playing for 12 years as a regular member of the team, so he will handle the team (well),” Ahmadzai, a former Afghanistan captain, stated.

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However, there were enough concerns on whether the team would be able to come out of the controversy and unite. But a few weeks ago, Asghar caught up with the Afghanistan board officials and sorted out the issue, after which he joined the team for training.

And ahead of the World Cup, perhaps, that has again helped the Afghanistan cricketers to dream big.

This will be the second World Cup appearance for Afghanistan — it had featured in the 2015 edition — and on paper, the side looks pretty balanced with a perfect blend of youth and experience.

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Focus on Shahzad

When the team begins its campaign, its batting department will largely depend on the vastly experienced Mohammad Shahzad. Of course, there are brighter talents like Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi in its ranks, but a lot will depend on how Shahzad fares.

The 32-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman comes in with the experience of playing in 80 ODIs, 65 T20s and a couple of Tests. And known for his aggressive style of play, the team will be expecting a good start from him.

“The game-changer in the Afghanistan side is Mohammed Shahzad. If he can get those quick runs in the first half an hour, 45 minutes, things can change,” former Afghanistan coach Lalchand Rajput said.

"The guys have a [high] morale, everyone is very excited to be participating in the World Cup," says new captain Gulbadin Naib (left).   -  Reuters

 

Having worked with the team till 2017, Rajput knows all the players inside out and he feels that the batsmen need to show tenacity. “It needs to be seen how the batsmen adapt to the swinging conditions. For the last three years, some of them are playing in the IPL, so they are used to performing under pressure. But playing in England is different. The batsmen need to adjust,” Rajput, who is now the coach of Zimbabwe, said.

That’s where Rahman and Shahidi need to step up. The two have enjoyed success in the longer and the shorter format of the game, and now they need to convert good starts into bigger scores. The seasoned campaigner Asghar is also expected to come good.

Having captained the team until recently, Asghar has a perfect understanding of the side and his contribution in the middle order will be of great significance.

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Nabi, Rashid the key

The Afghanistan team had a 21-day long training session in South Africa and even toured Scotland and Ireland to get enough match practice before the mega event.

That, the team management hopes, would reflect on the team’s performance.

The middle order has Nabi and Hazratullah Zazai — both known for their big-hitting abilities. They will be backed by the spinner all-rounder Rashid — who had a brilliant outing in the Indian Premier League — and captain Gulbadin. Having played in almost all the franchise leagues across the globe, Rashid’s experience will be the key for Afghanistan.

“Rashid is a match-winner. He is experienced with the Big Bash, IPL, CPL and he knows how to win matches. A lot of people have also started hitting him, but in England, if it is a helpful wicket, he will be a game-changer,” Rajput said.

The team also has quality spinners in Nabi and Mujeeb Zadran. “They have three top spinners in the ranks and they can turn the table on the opponents,” Rajput stated.

Also, the fast bowlers are poised to play a big role and Afghanistan’s pace department is well-stacked with prominent names like Dawlat Zadran and Aftab Alam.

The selectors have brought back Hamid Hassan, who last played for Afghanistan in 2016, to bolster the pace unit and the 31-year-old’s experience will come in handy for the side.

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Over the last few years, Afghanistan has made significant progress. From being an associate nation, it has gone on to attain full-membership status. That has had an impact on its performance as well. Though it has achieved more success in T20s — as compared to ODIs and Tests — the team has all the potential to pull off a few surprises in the World Cup.

“Afghanistan has got the best bowling attack, especially spinners. In England, if it is their good day when the ball grips and spins, they will upset some of the top teams,” Rajput said.

With the captaincy issue settled, the side seems to have struck a chord.

A decade ago, featuring in a World Cup looked like a dream. But now, the band of boys have not only dared to dream, but have also posed a challenge to the other teams.

No team can afford to take Afghanistan lightly in this World Cup! When I look at my team, we prepared very well the last couple of months.