KARACHI : Since the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Afghanistan cricket has been steadily on the rise albeit with minor hiccups in between.
A team which was initially formed with players picked up from refugee camps of a war-torn country; the Afghan side has shown enough progress to be considered a threat in the upcoming Asia Cup.
After a miraculous campaign in the 2018 ICC World Cup Qualifiers, Afghanistan came back from the brink of an exit and qualified for the 2019 mega event in England and Wales.
They went on to win their last three-match ODI series away to Ireland as well. They have notched up four victories in four of their previous five matches.
Batting is, probably, the weakest aspect of their game as they have only notched up totals over 250 on three occasions while batting first during the past three years.
The Afghan team opted for three different opening pairs during their last ODI series against Ireland away from home and since the opening match of the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe, the Asian side has opted for seven different combinations for its opening slot.
Amid the merry go round, it is expected that wicketkeeper-batsman Mohammad Shahzad — who has played 49 innings of his ODI career as an opener out of a total of 71 — will most likely get the nod alongside 20-year-old Ihsanullah Janat, although right-hand batsman Javed Ahmadi can also be called upon as a backup plan.
Captain Asghar Afghan along with Hashmatullah Shahidi and Rahmat Shah — who is Afghanistan’s highest scorer so far in 2018 with 600 runs in 15 matches —will form the backbone of the side in the middle order.
Perhaps their team’s greatest strength lies in its spin-bowling departments where they have a variety of bowling options.
Rashid Khan — world’s leading wicket taker in ODIs in 2018 with 38 scalps at an average of 13.73 — and Mujeebur Rahman — who has bagged 30 wickets in 2018 so far — can bamboozle any batting lineup with their leg spin bowling in helpful conditions.
Experienced all-rounder Mohammad Nabi adds value to the side through his economical bowling in the middle overs and effective hitting lower down the order.
Team has adequate experience of playing in the UAE with 31 appearances since their first outing in 2010 against Canada in Sharjah, which puts them in good stead to pull off an upset in the upcoming event.
The team might not have played much cricket against top-ranked ODI sides but the few of their players — including Khan, Rahman and Nabi — have gained enough experience and exposure by featuring in T20 leagues around the globe.
Grouped alongside number seven-ranked Bangladesh and eight-placed Sri Lanka keeps Afghanistan in with a shout at the Asia Cup, as teams in this group are quite even-matched on paper.
Vs Sri Lanka- Matches 2, won 0, lost 2,
Vs Bangladesh- Matches 5, won 2, lost 3,
Asia Cup- Matches 4, won 1, lost 3
Asia Cup achievements
First-ever participation in 2014
Beat hosts Bangladesh in the five-team event
Rashid Khan (Bowler)
Since making his debut as a 17-year-old against Zimbabwe in 2015, the 19-year-old has quickly established himself as one of the best spinners in the world of cricket.
Khan made his ODI debut for Afghanistan against Zimbabwe in October 2015 and since then he has never looked back as his career went from strength to strength.
Aided by accurate line and length, Khan used a clever combination of legbreaks and googlies in order to outguess the batsman.His skilful leg-spin bowling has been a menace for opposing batsmen but the upcoming Asia Cup will be one of the toughest Tests in his short career as he will be up against the teams who are good players of spin.
A look at Rashid’s ODI stats showcase a staggering bowling average of 14.22, a commendable strike rate of 21.7 and hugely impressive economy rate of 3.92 — all of that leading to 108 ODI wickets in 47 matches.
In February 2017, Khan secured the highest bid for any Associate nation player ever, eventually being roped in by Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad.
If Khan is able to spun a web around the batsmen like he usually does, Afghanistan could well be on their way to making some serious inroads during the tournament.
Best figures 7-18
Mohammad Nabi (All-rounder)
The 33-year-old former captain of Afghanistan side has been in the thick of things ever since the country established itself in the world of cricket.
He is one of the few players who has played over 100 ODI matches for the side.
With Nabi in the team, Afghanistan can benefit on multiple fronts with his tight off-spin bowling in the middle overs to tighten the noose around the opposition while he is also handy with the bat coming lower down the order and can strike some lusty blows.
He has vital experience of playing club and domestic cricket — including both T20 and first-class — in England, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan which has proved vital in his development as a quality all-rounder.
Quetta Gladiators, Sunrises Hyderabad, St.Kitts and Nevis Patriots and Melbourne Renegades are just a few franchises that he has represented in the past.
During the tour of India in the 2000s, Nabi came under prominence after being noticed by Mike Gatting when he hit a ton against the touring MCC side which led to a stint with MCC and a first-class debut for the all-rounder.
He was the captain of the side when Afghanistan defeated Bangladesh in the 2014 Asia Cup — their only victory in the event so far.
If Afghanistan are to progress in the tournament, Nabi will have to play a key role for the side with both bat and ball.
Rahmat Shah (Batsman)
The Afghan side will be relying on 25-year-old Rahmat Shah to do bulk of the scoring bearing in mind the inconsistency shown by their top order.
They would love to see Shah extend his good run of form to the Asia Cup and provide much-needed solidity to their batting.
During the early stages of his career, Shah was not able to cement his place in the side due to lack of opportunities.
But in the recent past, he has grabbed every opportunity that came his way with both hands starting off with a comeback hundred against Scotland in 2016.
He also regularly contributed with the bat during the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers scoring 280 runs at an average of 35.
He has the best average (37.88) for players over 1000 runs in ODI cricket for Afghanistan and is currently the highest run-scorer for the country in 2018 —making him a pivotal member of the squad and especially their batting.
Only Mohammad Shahzad has more hundreds (four) than Shah’s three in ODI cricket for Afghanistan.
Shah might not be an elegant player but he is effective and that is precisely the reason why he has become such an important cog in the team’s wheel.
Highest score 114