Now here’s a contest that England would once have feared. A surely-can’t-lose clash with an aggressive band of ball-striking badmashs, backed up by some of the best and most varied spin bowlers in the world game.
Sides of a bygone England era might have taken a fatalistic approach to such a line-up, and found a way to be cowed by expectation. But not, you suspect, this current team. Even with the prospect of two major absentees from their first-choice batting line-up – Jason Roy has been ruled out with a hamstring tear and Eoin Morgan is still recovering from a back spasm – there’s little chance of any let-up from a side that seems now to be hitting its stride in the tournament, following that early stumble against Pakistan.
Besides, there’s something about Afghanistan that just doesn’t feel right just now. Their rise through world cricket’s ranks has been a joy to behold, and the heart that they showed in winning the qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe last year – despite losing each of their first three games – is proof that this group of battlers can never be entirely written off.
But in four World Cup matches to date, they simply haven’t been at the races. Their campaign has been a litany of incremental controversies, from the sacking of the captain, Asghar Afghan, on the eve of the tournament, to the eviction of their opener Mohammad Shahzad for an injury that he claims did not exist, to the dropping against South Africa of their one in-form batsman, Najibullah Zadran. None of them constitutes a shocking scandal in its own right, but the net effect is destabilisation and demoralisation. Just when the players need to be trusted to strut the same stuff that has got them to the World Cup in the first place, they are finding themselves dragged down by in-fighting and incompetence.
Afghanistan’s natural exuberance seems to have been drained in recent outings as well. Case in point, their dispiriting display against South Africa in Cardiff on Saturday. Faced with a team in every bit as much strife as their own, they traded a dogged start with the bat for a shambolic finish, losing their last nine wickets for 69 in 19 overs despite having given the impression – through the number of times they shouldered arms to South Africa’s seamers – that seeing out 50 overs was the most important aspect of their day’s work.
England have encountered one team of this ilk in the tournament already, of course. Quite apart from sharing a border, Afghanistan and Pakistan share an ability to turn it on (or off) from one day to the next. If a batsman of the destructive qualities of Hazratullah Zazai can get stuck for any period of time, then a spinner of Rashid Khan’s world-beating quality could find himself with enough runs to do a number on another highly fancied side.
But the odds do seem stacked against them on this occasion. England’s depth with bat and ball (even in the midst of their injury woes) is designed to mitigate against flurries of opposition aggression, and they will surely believe that this will be the victory that puts them on the brink of a place in the semi-finals. Afghanistan still have the potential to claim a major scalp before their own campaign ends, but it would be one of the greatest World Cup shocks of all time if this England team, at this moment in time, were the side to succumb.
Afghanistan LLLLW (Last five completed matches, most recent first)
in the spotlight
Is there something amiss with Adil Rashid – Morgan is adamant he’s fine (see below) – or does he simply need an extra injection of confidence to get his game back to the levels that England so desperately want? Despite talk of a shoulder injury that might have tempted the management to give him a break, he has played in every game of the campaign to date, with Moeen Ali the spinner to miss out in each of the last two games. Rashid’s returns have been poor without being appalling – two wickets at 101.50 and an economy of 6.15 – but crucially, he’s not been offering the all-round wicket threat that Morgan in particular so values as a captain. Perhaps a flurry of cheap scalps will help him to rip that googly with renewed intent. Assuming his shoulder doesn’t fall off in the process, of course.
At this somewhat critical stage of their World Cup journey, it’s time for the experienced heads in the Afghanistan squad to take control – and few have more experience, and crucially, current form, than the wily allrounder Mohammad Nabi. With bat and ball, he’s been an example of what could still be possible for this team – his three-wicket over against Sri Lanka ought to have set up a shot at victory in Cardiff last week, and while his batting in the main event hasn’t yet caught fire, he was one of the few to take the fight to England in their warm-up at The Oval last month, with three big sixes in his 44.
After his unexpected absence against South Africa, Najibullah seems sure to slot back into Afghanistan’s middle order … though who knows what the management is thinking at present. Asghar Afghan didn’t exactly justify his recall with a five-ball duck against South Africa, and may be the man to make way once again. The prospect of spin may bring Mujeeb Ur Rahman back into the reckoning.
Afghanistan: (possible) 1 Hazratullah Zazai, 2 Noor Ali Zadran, 3 Rahmat Shah, 4 Hashmatullah Shahidi, 5 Gulbadin Naib (capt), 6 Najibullah Zadran, 7 Mohammad Nabi, 8 Ikram Alikhil (wk), 9 Rashid Khan, 10 Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 11 Hamid Hassan
Roy’s absence has been confirmed after his hamstring tear against West Indies – he will miss the Sri Lanka match as well, with James Vince set to slot straight in at the top of the order. Morgan’s fitness was also under a cloud after he suffered a back spasm, but he was moving freely in the nets on the eve of the game and may yet feature. Liam Plunkett missed training with a stomach complaint but is not thought to be a serious concern.
England (possible) 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 James Vince, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Chris Woakes, 8 Adil Rashid, 9 Liam Plunkett, 10 Jofra Archer, 11 Mark Wood.
Pitch and conditions
After the same strip served up 336 runs for India against Pakistan on Sunday, the straw colour of the surface augurs well for further big hitting, and the hint of footmarks augurs the return of two spinners to England’s attack. Judging by what he’d seen on Sunday, Morgan anticipated good carry for the quicks, allied to a bit of turn. The weather promises an overcast start and the potential for showers in the afternoon, and the eve of the game featured steady rain as well. Another bowl-first day would seem to be in prospect.
- Afghanistan’s spin-heavy attack offers another opportunity for England’s batsmen to reaffirm their new-found credentials as masters of white-ball slow bowling. From 2011 until the end of the 2015 World Cup, England averaged 30.2 against spin while facing Asian opponents in ODIs. Since then, that figure has rocketed to 54.4. Consequently, their win percentage against Asian teams has rocketed in the same period. From 40.8% between 2011 and 2015, that figure is now a much healthier 70.5%.
- One of Afghanistan’s established strategies in recent times has been to unleash the offspin of Mohammad Nabi against the left-handers in the opposition ranks. However, England’s senior left-handers – Morgan and Ben Stokes – have largely negated such tactics with their prowess against the ball turning away from them. Both Stokes and Morgan average above 60 against offspinners in ODIs since the 2015 World Cup, and have done so with a strike-rate over 90 against that bowling type.
Stats and trivia
- England won their only previous ODI encounter with Afghanistan, a rain-affected nine-wicket win in Sydney at the 2015 World Cup.
- With England having already been eliminated from the World Cup following their defeat against Bangladesh in Adelaide, that fixture marked the final ODI appearance of a number of England stalwarts – Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara, James Tredwell and James Anderson.
- This contest provides a match-up between the two most prolific ODI bowlers since the 2015 World Cup … and they are both legspinners called Rashid. England’s Adil tops the charts with 131 from 87 games, but Afghanistan’s Khan (128 at 15.86) has an average that is almost half that of his counterpart.