MUMBAI: Every Afghanistan player has a story to tell. A story of grief, agony, and struggle. This World Cup, they have presented themselves an opportunity to bask in its glory, put the past behind – even if briefly – and bring some joy to the millions back home.
With four wins in seven matches, the Afghans have given themselves a sniff at the semifinal spot.For that to turn into a reality, though, they must pull off a heist in their remaining two matches against Australia and South Africa respectively. It’s a daunting task considering that both the teams, besides India, have been churning out remarkable performances this edition.
Afghanistan’s opponents on Tuesday at the Wankhede Stadium will be five-time champions Australia. While they are on a high, toppling Australia will be a much bigger task than what they achieved against England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. England have been stuck in first gear throughout this tournament, while Pakistan were still warming up and were going through a four-match losing streak. Sri Lanka are no more an ODI force.
Australia, though, are a different beast and difficult to reign in on most occasions. Their five wins on the trot, after losing their opening two matches, is enough to prove it. The equation is simple for the Aussies: win the match and secure a place in the semis.
Afghanistan have always had quality bowlers at their disposal but this World Cup, their batters have come to the fore as well and won them matches. So, it is no surprise to see three of their four wins coming while chasing, including their last three on the trot.
Their top five batters – Rahmanullah Gurbaz (236 runs), Ibrahim Zardan (320), Rahmat Shah (264), Hashmatullah Shahidi (282) and Azmatullah Omarzai (234) – have shared the burden and batted sensibly to take them home. That they have managed to do so is thanks to the efforts put in by their bowlers – especially spinners – to restrict the opponents. The likes of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi have made life difficult for the opposition batters.
Australia know the threat they can be, so, most of their focus, or the talk, on the eve of their clash was centred around Afghan spinners. Most of the bowlers they faced in the nets were either leg-spinners, left-arm chinaman and off-spinners.
Australia’s middle-order batter Steve Smith said that the team always knew tackling spin will be key in this World Cup. “Spinners have had pretty big impacts for most teams in those middle overs and we knew that coming into the World Cup, that those middle-overs batting periods are going to be crucial to negate the damage as much as possible, build foundations for the backend,” said Smith.
“A lot of the guys have been watching a lot of the games that have been played and we’ve seen a lot of their (Afghanistan) bowlers playing around the world in different tournaments and know what they’re capable of doing. They’ve some good bowlers and we need to respect them at times, put pressure on them at times and get that balance right.”
Maxwell, Marsh available
In good news for Australia, both Glenn Maxwell and Mitchell Marsh will be available for selection and both had long stints in the nets on Monday. While Maxwell missed the last match against England due to concussions, Marsh had flown back home for a family emergency. He rejoined the squad on Sunday.
Slowly, but surely, Australia have ironed out flaws and are peaking at the right time, with the knockouts around the corner.