Afghanistan have no room for error at Cricket World Cup Qualifier

Afghanistan have no room for error at Cricket World Cup Qualifier
Afghanistan face a tough challenge to qualify for the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England. (AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018

Afghanistan have no room for error at Cricket World Cup Qualifier

Afghanistan have no room for error at Cricket World Cup Qualifier

BANGALORE: Those that were at the Manuka Oval in Canberra on Feb. 18, 2015, will never forget that afternoon-evening as long as they live. Bangladesh against Afghanistan may not have been the most high-profile clash of the cricket World Cup, or even one of the closest — Bangladesh romped home by 105 runs — but the atmosphere had to be experienced to be believed.
Less than a decade earlier, Afghanistan inhabited the lower reaches of the World Cricket League. Even when they thrashed an MCC side led by Mike Gatting in Mumbai in March 2006, the mood around them was one of kindly indulgence. Few people took them seriously as cricketers. But less than nine years on, there they were at their first World Cup game, half a decade after they had graced a World Twenty20 in the Caribbean.
Though outnumbered by Bangladeshi fans in their tiger regalia, thousands of Afghan fans had journeyed from across Australia and beyond to watch history being made. And even though they lost control 30 overs into the game, the drums stayed beating right till the end.
Those drums have been alarmingly quiet over the past ten days, with one of the pre-tournament favorites at the World Cup qualifiers on the brink of missing out on a ticket to the big tent in England in the summer of 2019. Everything that could possibly go wrong for Afghanistan has, and only Nepal’s victory over Hong Kong allowed them to sneak into the Super Sixes. 
But if they lose against once-mighty West Indies on Thursday, unbeaten in their four group games, the Afghan dream — with zero points carried over from the league phase — will be as good as extinguished. And this with four players who attracted the attention of Indian Premier League scouts in the auction in January.
Even the draw for the qualifiers was kind to them. West Indies, world champions in 1975 and ‘79, and for whom failure to qualify would represent a death knell of sorts, were in the other group, as were Ireland, who upset one established nation in each of their three previous World Cup appearances. The Irish were also one of the few teams in the competition against whom Afghanistan have a losing record (7-9).
But kind draws do not win you matches, as Manchester United discovered at Old Trafford earlier this week. Afghanistan stumbled against a resurgent Scotland and then imploded spectacularly against a Zimbabwe side they had routed 4-1 in Sharjah just a month earlier. With almost 17 overs to be bowled, the Afghans needed just 41 to win with seven wickets in hand. But three wickets in a Sikander Raza over transformed the game, and the narrow defeat left them with a Kilimanjaro ascent to ponder.
They were then beaten by Hong Kong, whose strong Asian contingent stymied the impact of Rashid Khan, one of the IPL’s marquee signings. He finished wicketless, and the batsmen failed yet again when it came under scrutiny. Rashid, who led the side in the absence of Asghar Stanikzai, the captain whose own batting form has been so ordinary of late, offered
no excuses.
“We cannot play under pressure and cannot hold control of our nerves,” he said in a damning indictment of his teammates. “In pressure situations, we played irresponsible cricket. But I hope we will not repeat those shortcomings in future.”
It is not just pressure or even complacency that has left the Afghans on the brink though. With Rashid developing into a global star with his exploits in the Twenty20 arena, their attack has gradually become spin-dominated. The pace that could once terrify some Associate players isn’t really there any more.
Hamid Hassan, who hasn’t played an ODI in nearly two years, is sorely missed. With his Rambo headband, bustling action and searing pace, Hamid was one of the main reasons why Afghanistan quickly became so popular with the neutrals. Even at the World Cup, his three-wicket burst against Sri Lanka took them to the verge of a famous win before Thisara Perera’s beliigerent hitting took the game away.
Despite being recalled for the T20 format earlier this year, Hamid did not find a place in the squad for the qualifiers. The other pace bowlers have been largely disappointing, and they now have no room for error against a West Indies line-up in prime batting form.
Rashid led Afghanistan to a famous win in the Caribbean last year, and they also upset West Indies at the World T20 in 2016 — the only team to beat them as they won the title. But under pressure, and knowing that one slip means the death of the dream, it remains to be seen which Afghanistan will turn up. The stakes have never been higher.