Take Afghanistan lightly at your own peril

Take Afghanistan lightly at your own peril

A side which has made massive strides in international cricket since its World Cup debut in 2015, it will not be a surprise if a spirited Afghanistan humbles one or two leading sides at the mega event, beginning next week.

Now known for its prowess on the field rather than an also-ran from a troubled nation, all top teams will be wary of the threat they pose despite an 11th hour change in leadership.

Afghanistan won only one game in the 2015 edition but that was the time when they did not boast match-winners like Rashid Khan.

None other than India skipper Virat Kohli acknowledged Afghanistan’s rapid rise in the last four years.

“If you look at Afghanistan from 2015 to now, they are a completely different side. Any team can upset anyone on its day (in this World Cup),” Kohli said ahead of his team’s departure to England.

The overall squad too is much richer in experience and go into the tournament as winners of the ICC World Cup Qualifier in which it outplayed the West Indies twice including in the final.

Afghanistan trained in South Africa before the final leg of preparations in the UK where it played ODIs against Scotland and Ireland. Off the field, their build-up for the World Cup was far from ideal due to the sudden sacking of long-time captain Asghar Afghan from all three formats though he remains part of the ODI squad.

Senior players Mohammad Nabi and Rashid took to social media to question the need for a captaincy change less than two months before the quadrennial competition. They were eventually pacified by the selectors and the cricket board.

Even head coach Phil Simmons was not kept in the loop as the selectors opted for split captaincy with the unassuming Gulbadin Naib chosen to lead the 50-over side.

In a recent chat with PTI, Afghanistan chief selector Dawlat Khan Ahmadzai insisted that all is well with the team now but it remains to be seen how Naib shoulders the leadership responsibility in on a big stage like the World Cup.

He led from the front in an ODI against Ireland in Belfast on Tuesday, taking a career-best six for 43 in the team’s 126-run victory.

Afghanistan are most dangerous in the T20 format but have also shown their competitiveness in 50-over cricket. Their biggest strength is the world-class spin trio of Rashid, Nabi and Mujeeb Zadran while Hamid Hassan and Dawlat Zadran form a potent pace combination.

Their batsmen don’t inspire the same confidence as their bowlers but are capable enough to surprise the opposition. The onus will be on the entertaining Mohammad Shahzad, who smashed 101 in Belfast on Monday, to get Afghanistan off to a good start with Rahmat Shah anchoring the innings at number three.

Hashmatullah Shahidi, Afghan and Nabi will man the middle-order.

The pitches are expected to be batting friendly but the fast bowlers will come into play at some point during the World Cup and when they do, it will be a tough test for the Afghanistan batsmen.

The chief selector has set a rather ambitious target of reaching the semifinals but in a tournament where all the 10 teams play each other at least once, trust Afghanistan to add a few more memorable chapters to their remarkable cricketing story.

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