Afghanistan hold nerve to clinch high-scoring thriller
Afghanistan 187 for 7 (Ghani 42, Naib 37, Cremer 3-17) beat Zimbabwe 182 for 7 (Waller 49*, Dawlat 3-32) by five runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Both sides were far from their best on the field. While that didn't translate into a high standard of cricket, it made for an entertaining clash nonetheless. The end result was a last-ball finish, with two metres and a fine low catch by Gulbadin Naib separating both sides as Afghanistan held their nerve to outclass Zimbabwe by five runs in the first T20I in Sharjah.
But the catch wasn't Naib's only contribution in the match. His cameo of 37 and a 52-run stand for the fifth wicket with Mohammad Nabi gave Afghanistan the impetus they needed after a middle order slump orchestrated by Graeme Cremer, who picked up three wickets. Afghanistan blasted 66 off the last five overs to finish with 187 for 7. It nearly didn't prove enough.
With 60 needed off the last five overs, Zimbabwe were in with a slim chance. Malcolm Waller swung his way to more runs in this innings alone than he had done in the preceding ODI series, while Elton Chigumbura found his hitting range to bring it down to 21 off the last over. Asghar Stanikzai's decision to keep his premier pacer Dawlat Zadran worked, but by only just. His end figures of 3 for 32 were far more flattering in the overall context, but the scorecard wouldn't reveal how he nearly finished second-best on the night.
He was lucky to get away with two high full tosses that were called no-ball, to give Zimbabwe two free-hits, which they couldn't take full toll of. One of them even accounted for Chigumbura's run-out as he was scampering back for the second. What followed was total pandemonium. But with 16 needed off four, Luke Jongwe muscled a six and a four to bring it down to six off two. Then came a close call, with Dawlat flirting with the wide line.
With six needed off the final ball, Jongwe carved one over the infield only for Naib to, quite fittingly, take the catch at the deep-cover boundary to end the heart-stopping thriller. In the end, Zimbabwe were left wondering what could have been had they held their chances that would have ensured they didn't have to chase these many.
Mohammad Shahzad was dropped by Chamu Chibhabha at deep midwicket off the third ball to deny debutant Donald Tiripano a wicket Shortly after, Masakadza was caught in a brain freeze as his decision to run towards the stumps instead of lobbing a throw to the wicketkeeper resulted in Usman Ghani a reprieve. The result of the two misses cost Zimbabwe 33 and 42 respectively, which set them a solid base for a blaze at the end.
But Cremer wasn't giving up. The classical legspinner used his height and clever use of angles to generate bounce and beat the batsmen with his dip. The end result was magical figures of 4-0-17-3 that briefly caused a few flutters in the Afghanistan camp as they slipped from 62 without loss to 105 for 4. But Tendai Chisoro, the left-arm spinner, and Raza, the part-time offspinner, failed to create the same impact Cremer had.
While Chisoro kept firing them in, only for Nabi and Naib to get underneath the ball and hit them cleanly, Raza fed them with long hops that were dispatched. When their partnership, that gave the innings a power-boost ended with Chisoro sending back Nabi, the mood in the Zimbabwe camp spelt relief.
There wasn't an iota of doubt that this would be a difficult chase. The loss of two early wickets, both to Dawlat, gave Afghanistan an early advantage. But Hamilton Masakadza and Richmond Mutumbami then came out swinging as Afghanistan's bowlers repeatedly missed their lengths. The result was Zimbabwe wiping out 95 runs in 11 overs.
But the pressure of the asking rate and some tight bowling by the spinners following Masakadza's downfall to a reverse sweep for 33 allowed Afghanistan a foot in the door. Sikandar Raza and Waller then continued to keep the fight going. Aiding them along the way was some heavy dew and some poor death bowling as Zimbabwe managed to find the boundaries with regularity.
Waller cashed in on Rashid Khan's inexperience by targeting the short midwicket boundaries. Yet there was a lingering feeling that Zimbabwe were just a wicket away from being squeezed out of the contest. But they did well to hang in till the very end courtesy Jongwe's two blows that could have been decisive, but Afghanistan did remarkably well to hold their own under pressure to eke out a win that could have a galvanising effect on them.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo