Afghans misfire but hint at huge potential

18 March 2016
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There's room for improvement with bat, ball and in the field, yet Afghanistan still pushed defending champions Sri Lanka all the way

This was a seminal day for Afghan cricket.

They aspire to be in cricket’s elite ten and here, for the first time, they were, having knocked out Zimbabwe to qualify for the main stage of the World T20.

With both bat and ball, Afghanistan exhibited swagger and confidence on the world stage.

After a torrid start, skipper Asghar Stanikzai rebuilt the innings with class and poise, and then thrashed four towering sixes as Afghanistan plundered 91 from the last 7.3 overs.

WATCH: Afghan skipper inspires side with gutsy knock

On one occasion Stanikzai, deep in his crease and out of position for a yorker well outside off-stump, hopped into the ball and harrumphed it straight for a towering six while hurtling towards point. It was a shot that embodied Afghanistan’s fearlessness and unorthodoxy with the bat.

But bowling is Afghanistan’s real strength and there was ample evidence of as much in the gumption of Rashid Khan, who reinforced his reputation as the cricketing world’s canniest 17-year-old. Half of his 24 deliveries were googlies, and barely a ball was pitched out of place.

Quick Single: Dilshan scoops Sri Lanka to victory

The flat offspin of Mohammad Nabi, which induced Dinesh Chandimal to sky meekly to midwicket in the course of a wicket maiden, was similarly admirable.

So in skill with bat and ball, Afghanistan are not lacking. The trouble is that cricket is about more than just these two disciplines, and never has that been truer than in the age of T20.

Afghanistan are capable of the spectacular in the field; Mohammad Shahzad threw down the stumps in a wonderful piece of athleticism that defied his portly frame, while Nabi also contributed a sharp run out, deflecting a straight drive back onto the stumps.

WATCH: Shahzad's athletic run-out

Yet, that apart, Afghanistan’s fielding was lamentably slapdash.

Shahzad spilled four byes through his legs. Three times fielders on the boundary committed rudimentary errors to let singles turn into fours.

The most damning moment of all was when Gulbadin Naib allowed a ball to slip through his legs for four on the boundary rope. Gulbadin was not playing: he was on as a substitute fielder, suggesting that Afghanistan regard the three other members of their squad not selected as even greater liabilities in the field.

Self-inflicted errors were not confined to fielding either.

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Fresh from 43 against Zimbabwe, Samiullah Shenwari was promptly demoted down the order, folly he exposed in fusing brutality and beauty in an exquisite 14-ball 31. Meanwhile Karim Sadiq was brought into the side at number four, and made an excruciating seven-ball duck.

With the ball, Sadiq’s two overs of offspin yielded 21, while Shenwari was restricted to two overs of beguiling legspin even though he only yielded nine runs.

And yet, for all Afghanistan’s disappointment at allowing Tillakaratne Dilshan to lead Sri Lanka to a victory that ultimately became a cruise, perhaps no other game has better distilled their potential as a cricketing force.

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Dilshan celebrates Sri Lanka's victory // Getty

Their fielding was execrable, their top order batting lacking in finesse, their pace bowlers under par and their tactics questionable.

For all that, they still caused the reigning champions moments of genuine anxiety.

That Afghanistan on a mediocre day performed so credibly is testament to a future brimming with potential.

They need far more matches against leading nations – this was their first game against any Test team not called Zimbabwe in a year – and to learn that fielding like a tribute act to their coach, Inzaman-ul-Haq, is not acceptable in international cricket in 2016.

Thanks to their inclusion in the 12-team ODI structure, alongside Ireland and the ten Test nations, Afghanistan have enjoyed an uptick in ICC funding.

The first way they should spend it is on a specialist fielding coach.