Almost an upset!
Most of all, this Indian team has repeated exposure to winning. They know not to panic in a deep-seated chase, and let the game unravel even if at the last ball of the final over.
A day before their game against India, Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib was asked about mood in the dressing room, especially as a lot of senior players had voiced concerns about his leadership before this tournament began. “No comments about that,” he had replied.
There has been something disjointed about Afghanistan cricket in this 2019 World Cup. The usual chutzpah was missing, even though they didn’t throw in the towel every time they played. People expected them to punch above their weight – to fight hard in a competition wherein they were present just to surprise. But the fight was missing. Almost as if it had gone out of them, thanks to umpteen off-field issues.
And then, came the England shellacking – Eoin Morgan smacked 17 sixes, almost proving the naysayers correct – Afghanistan don’t belong here.
That is a key word – almost – in the Afghanistan cricket story. Growing up in refuge camps, they almost didn’t end up playing cricket. Coming back from almost the brink in the World Cup qualifiers (in Zimbabwe), they made it to England. Those much-anticipated surprises almost never came, until Saturday. They almost beat India.
First things first, they played four spinners against this Indian batting line-up. Very few teams will have the audacity to do it. Back in Manchester too, Afghanistan played four spinners and England made sure it backfired on them. Different pitches yes, albeit the Afghans thought it would turn just a tad more than it did. It did not in Old Trafford. It did a lot in Southampton.
Afghanistan realized it early as Rohit Sharma played down the wrong line against Mujeeb Ur Rahman. And then the choke began – four spinners, 34 overs, five wickets. Their bowling was a summation of Rahman’s surprise, of Rahmat Shah’s guile, of Mohammad Nabi’s experience, and of Rashid Khan’s genius. Together, they made sure India never got away.
The key difference was in bowling slow, and using what the Hampshire Bowl pitch offered them. In Manchester, they had rushed through, but here they were more patient. Perhaps the biggest example of it was Rashid Khan, who made a stunning reversal from 0-119 in nine overs to 1-38 in ten overs here. Playing too much cricket can have that impact and Khan certainly does play a lot of it.
Sometimes, even the world’s best bowlers need to be told to do things right, and it was as if Afghan spinners needed to be told to bowl slower. Whoever did give them that advice is an ace – it worked like a charm. Just ask MS Dhoni, or Kedar Jadhav, or even Hardik Pandya. India’s middle order struggle to get the ball away, as only 49 runs came off the last ten overs. It was an aberration, probably won’t happen too often, but India’s middle order problems were indeed exposed once their top-order failed to bat long. Who would have thought Afghanistan would be the first team to do it?
Those death overs mattered because Afghanistan didn’t squander an opportunity they had created. It could have been easy to get ahead of themselves and allow India to escape this chokehold, but they made sure it didn’t happen. Kedar Jadhav, whose half-century held things together for India, spoke about how they were short by 30-odd runs. With 225 to get, Afghanistan definitely went in to the dressing room thinking they could get a stunning win.
With 260, perhaps they wouldn’t have. The underlying point herein is about small margins make all the difference in a tournament like this. For Afghanistan though, it is never about the tournament as a whole. Remember, they cannot win it? Then, it becomes about breaking each passage of play down, small as you can, and get ahead inch by inch. They planned to bat 50 overs, from the very beginning, just like in Old Trafford.
From then onwards, the Afghan innings resembled the fourth innings of a Test match. They were chasing a lowly total and India threw the kitchen sink at them. It was about calculating the chase at every stage, and recalibrating as the situation unfolded. They only conceded two wickets to the Indian spinners, another feather in their hat, and took the chase deep. And they almost crossed the finish line.
That word again – almost – is pivotal at this juncture. The obvious question arises here. If Afghanistan did most things right, why did India still win? For one, they have better quality pacers, who on a slow wicket could use line and length as their weapon to restrict scoring. The Men in Blue are also a better fielding unit, to be able to cut down extra scoring, and make up for lost runs.
Most of all, this Indian team has repeated exposure to winning. They know not to panic in a deep-seated chase, and let the game unravel even if at the last ball of the final over. Each of their players have been in such situations hundreds of times, whether in international cricket or the IPL. Their opponents, in comparison, are still only learning tricks of the trade. As such, it wasn’t the Indian team’s performance that won on Saturday, no. It was their superior experience.
Maybe, years down the line, Afghanistan cricket will earn that winning experience, trickling down from their current bunch of players and will do wonders. This present-day Afghanistan squad, though, will probably go winless in this tournament. They certain won’t be winning a World Cup.
Rest assured, they will tell their grandchildren the story of a fine English summer day when they almost beat India.