Playing top teams key to Afghanistan's growth - coach
For a while on Monday, you thought Afghanistan had a chance. Their second-wicket pair was looking comfortable at the crease, and when Asghar Stanikzai rose to his toes two times in three overs to cut balls of minimal width to the point boundary, you remembered what he'd helped his team achieve two days earlier.
Realistically, you probably knew they didn't stand a chance, chasing 254 against a quality Sri Lanka attack on a pitch that wasn't too easy to bat on. In the end, they didn't even get close. But you'd set your expectations higher than you would from most Associate teams, and this definitely meant something. Especially when this was only their fifth ODI against a Test side.
Kabir Khan, Afghanistan's coach, suggested after the match that his team had it in them to beat sides like Sri Lanka if given regular exposure against top teams.
"Well, it's the inexperience," Kabir said. "The quality bowling, world-class bowling we were playing against, the world-class fielding we were playing against... The [Sri Lanka] players, on average, would have played more than 100 matches per person, on average, and that's the difference, because they are used to this pressure, they are used to difficult conditions, and they are world class as well.
"If you compare, [Ajantha] Mendis and the fast-bowling attack, they play everywhere and they know what the name of the game is. I personally think that, I'm not saying we would have won the game, but it's the experience. If we play more matches, under pressure, against good bowling, again and again, I think results after 10 matches will be different."
Afghanistan have won one of the five matches they've played against Test teams, and given Pakistan a massive scare in another. They've taken 35 wickets in those five matches, and they've never conceded 300, despite playing twice against Pakistan and once each against Australia and Sri Lanka. But they've failed to reach 200 in three of those matches. Clearly, bowling is their strong suit. It's so strong, according to Kabir, that there isn't much to choose between Afghanistan's attack and the other attacks at the Asia Cup.
"In this tournament, if you see, our bowling has done a lot better than other's bowling," he said. "When Sri Lanka is playing against India or Pakistan, each of the Test teams when they are playing each other, the minimum score is 270-plus, and our team is restricting each and every team below 255 or 250 and that sort of total. That shows that the bowling is doing really well, and the fielding is helping a bit.
"It's the batting that we want to develop more, and it will come only with experience and playing more 50-over games. We are good at T20s, and you can see that. The boys like to play strokes. The boys don't control their innings with singles and twos, they like to hit boundaries. But developing an innings and playing 50 overs, it will take time and it will only come with time and experience."
It's interesting to compare Afghanistan now to where Ireland were after their fifth match against Test-playing sides. By that time, they were already in the Super Eights stage of the 2007 World Cup. They had beaten Pakistan, famously, and tied with Zimbabwe, but they had also scored 263 against England a year before that, in their first full ODI.
That Ireland team, though, included players like Trent Johnston and Andre Botha, who had started their cricket careers in other lands, and players such as Niall O'Brien and Eoin Morgan who had already represented English counties.
Afghanistan's players seem to have as much raw talent - perhaps more, in the case of their bowlers - than that Ireland side, but they have had far less exposure to first-class cricket outside of the Intercontinental Cup. According to Kabir, it was good for Afghanistan to play four-day games against other Associates, but they weren't playing enough matches for it to make a massive difference.
"Well, Intercontinental Cup helps, but if you look at it, you play eight four-day matches in two years, so it's not enough," he said. "If you look at it that way, it's very good for us, that we are playing four-day cricket, but if you play eight matches in two years or two-and-a-half years, you play three or four matches per year. In countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or India, you play 14 to 15 matches or maybe 16 first-class matches in one season, within four or five months. So that's the difference."
In the end, Mendis proved too difficult to handle for Afghanistan, and he ran through the lower order to ensure they fell well short of their objective of lasting 50 overs.
"Boys coped okay against Lasith [Malinga], I think, but not against Mendis," Kabir said. "He has just got too many varieties, it's very difficult for first-timers to read them. I think Indian team, when he came in, was struggling against him, but slowly they read him and they started playing against him, and when you start playing against a player a lot, then you start understanding him as well. The problem is that this is our sixth year since we got ODI status and this is the first time we are playing an ODI against Sri Lanka."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo