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Against Oz, Afghanistan dream of glory | Cricket


Against Oz, Afghanistan dream of glory | Cricket

Afghanistan versus Australia perhaps isn’t a fixture you would’ve circled out on your ICC World Cup calendars before the start. At Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium on Tuesday, though, this clash carries heightened significance for both teams as well as context for the tournament’s semi-final spots. And some geopolitical undercurrents.

 Sachin Tendulkar speaks with Afghanistan players during a practice session on the eve of their 2023 ICC Men's Cricket World Cup match against Australia at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai(AFP)
Sachin Tendulkar speaks with Afghanistan players during a practice session on the eve of their 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup match against Australia at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai(AFP)

Australia, on a five-match unbeaten roll and fresh off tying England up in knots in Ahmedabad, can lock their knockouts date with a win here. Afghanistan, arguably this World Cup’s standout tale from a neutral perspective, will hope to add another glorious chapter to it and throw the couple of remaining semi-final berths wide open again. Currently on eight points with New Zealand and Pakistan, a defeat will leave them with a lot of work to do (and favours to seek from elsewhere) against South Africa.

The Aussies and Afghans, incidentally, have charted similar routes in India. Both began the tournament tasting two defeats before picking themselves up — Australia by gradually getting their misfiring pieces together and Afghanistan by clinically taking down England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Netherlands for four times as many wins as in their previous World Cups.

The two teams’ paths in international cricket, however, tend to cross only during World Cups. Australia last played Afghanistan in a bilateral match a decade ago, in 2012. They’ve met only in World Cups since — twice in the ODIs (2015 and 2019) and once in T20s (2022). Earlier this year, Cricket Australia withdrew from a three-match ODI series in March against Afghanistan in the UAE. It cited the Taliban’s restrictions on women’s education and employment in Afghanistan, making it the second time an Australian team had pulled out from playing Afghanistan after a “postponed” Test in Hobart in 2021.

There have been murmurs from the Afghan camp ahead of the match (Naveen-ul-Haq’s Instagram story on it ended with “#standards #humanrights or 2 points”), while former Australia captain Steve Smith said those decisions were “far above my pay grade” speaking to the media in Mumbai on Monday.

Afghanistan’s spin threat

Tension or not, there would likely be an air of unknown when the Australians walk out with the Afghans. Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman are established names in world cricket now but the last time the Australian batters played them in a 50-overs game was four years ago in Bristol. That there’s no Afghan bowler among the top 10 wicket-takers this World Cup so far shows they’ve hunted as a pack, using spin as the primary artillery.

Australia aren’t too fond of playing spin, even though the flat nature of the Wankhede deck could work to their advantage. Smith labelled the Afghanistan spinners as a “big threat” and their team “dangerous”, which has “come a long way in the last five or six years”.

“They’re good bowlers, they’re smart bowlers,” Smith said. “They need to be respected at the right times and then we need to be able to put pressure on them at the right times as well.”

Afghanistan captain Hashmatullah Shahidi did not shy away from calling his spin attack “the best in the world”. Yet it’s their batting that has complemented it brilliantly, oozing efficiency and calm even in tricky chases.

Shahidi repeatedly used the terms “belief” and “mindset” in trying to explain the factors behind his team’s solid World Cup, having identified their middle-order batting as a problem area and working on “taking it away”. “We were good before as well, but we started thinking how to improve… how to take the responsibility, how to play according to the situation,” he said on Monday.

Smith under vertigo cloud

For the five-time champions, it hasn’t been the smoothest of campaigns thus far. Players have come and gone, with at least one of Australia’s first-choice picks unavailable for every match.

Mitchell Marsh, who lost his grandfather and flew home last week, rejoined the squad in Mumbai and trained on Monday. So did Glenn Maxwell, concussed and out of the England game after a freak golf injury. Smith, who wouldn’t confirm if the two were available for Tuesday, himself said he has been suffering from vertigo, even though he felt he’ll “be okay” for the match.

If all the three are indeed good to go on Tuesday, Australia may finally have an entire squad of 15 to choose from at the backend of their campaign that has belatedly taken flight. Against the “dangerous” Afghanistan side on a rousing run of their own, they may well need that.

Tendulkar meets Afghan players

Afghanistan’s training session under lights on Monday had a starry guest in Sachin Tendulkar. The Indian legend spent a considerable time with the Afghan players, speaking to them collectively in a huddle and also in groups thereafter while keeping an eye on their practice. He also accompanied the team’s head coach Jonathan Trott and mentor Ajay Jadeja during their pitch inspection.

“Yeah, it’s the first time (we’re meeting Tendulkar),” Shahidi said before the start of their training. “We all are excited because he’s the legend of the game. And for a lot of our players, we were watching him on TV… and he was a role model for a lot of our players,” he said, hoping to take away “maybe some words and we learn” from the meeting.

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