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Afghanistan 101 for 6 (Noor Ali 38*, Stanikzai 26, Silva 2-14, Fayyaz 2-14) beat UAE 100 for 9 (Saqib 24, Nabi 3-17, Mirwais 2-15) by 4 wickets
With their fairytale mission resting on the game, Afghanistan held their nerve to overcome a tenacious UAE side in a low-scoring thriller and take their place in the World Twenty20 that starts in May.
Rarely has an Associate competition inspired so much emotion as people from around the world willed Afghanistan on through the tournament. Their defeat to the Netherlands yesterday brought back bitter memories of Afghanistan's near-miss on qualification for the 50-over World Cup, but today there was no mistake.
Their win was crafted on a number of useful contributions, rather than an outstanding individual but on a tired surface Noor Ali's unbeaten 38, to guide his side home in a tense run chase, must be one of the most important innings in Afghanistan's history.
Asked to field first by home captain Khuuram Khan in front of a big crowd, Afghanistan settled into the contest immediately. The new-ball pair of Mirwais Ashraf and Shapoor Zadran have been important in giving Afghanistan control early and unlike yesterday, when they bowed under the pressure of the Netherlands' batsmen, the pair responded well. Within four overs UAE were restricted to 11 for 3, with Ashraf claiming two wickets and Zadran getting the important scalp of Afran Haider, who after a couple of dot balls slashed one straight down the throat of third man.
UAE have proved throughout the tournament that they are a resilient side and Abdul Rahman and Saqib Ali, who played so well against Ireland, set about undoing the early damage with 42-run stand. Having taken the score to 53 for 3 in just over 10 overs, Rahman got a grubber from Mohammed Nabi, that scuttled along the ground from a short length, straight into middle stump. Ali fell two overs later, having made a patient 24 and it was left to Naeemuddin Aslam to shepherd as many as he could from the tail. Nabi and Hamid Hassan, Afghanistan's specialist death bowler, prevented any hopes UAE may have had of pushing beyond 100 with tight and penetrating bowling. Nabi ended with 3 for 17 and Hassan 2 for 23, as UAE posted what looked to be a below-par total.
At this stage, Afghanistan would have backed themselves to coast home but they lost two wickets within the first four overs with only 16 on the board. Karim Sadiq and Mohammad Shahzad were both bowled by Shadeep Silva from deliveries that kept low and it was left to captain Nowroz Mangal to join Noor Ali to try and steady the ship. The pair carefully recovered the situation, running hard to add 32 important runs in six overs. When Mangal was out, trying to slog Fayyaz Ahmed over long on, for 14, his side needed 53 in 10 overs and the game was Afghanistan's to lose.
Ali continued to work the ball around well and found a willing partner in Asghar Stanikzai. They calmly pushed the score to 88, before Stanikzai needlessly tried to smash Ahmed over long off and was caught. It set nerves fluttering but in the 19th over, with 13 still needed, Ali swatted a short ball through midwicket for his only boundary of the innings, and followed it up with a two and another single. Nabi was bowled, deceived by a slower ball, but Samiullah Shenwari swept his first ball for four to leave just one needed from the final over.
Fittingly, it was Ali who secured the winning moment, chipping over mid off to cue celebrations that will continue all the way to the Caribbean.
He was named man of the match and is now eagerly looking forward to testing his skills against the top sides. "It has always been our dream to qualify and play in a World Cup. We missed out on the 50-over Cricket World Cup last year, so I am very happy we will play in the Twenty20 event," he said. "It is our dream to play against the best teams and have the chance to play against fast bowlers like Dale Steyn or Ishant Sharma. We will prepare ourselves very well for this event and we need to keep on getting better ahead of the World Twenty20."
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Assistant editor Sahil Dutta grew up supporting England during the 90s. Despite this, he still enjoys the game. His unrequited passions for Graeme Hick and, in latter years, Vikram Solanki gave him a stoicism that guided him through an Economics degree and a stint working at the European Parliament. He maintains the purest love for Tests and the whims of legspin bowling and still harbours hope that he could be the answer to England's long search for a mystery spinner. As it is, his most exciting cricketing experience was planning a trip to Australia for the 2006-07 Ashes with two utterly indifferent friends. Unfortunately his lung collapsed shortly before his planned departure and the pair were left to wander around from Test to Test, unprepared and clueless. Any comparisons with England are far too obvious to make. That cancelled holiday inspired an Ashes blog which led, via some tea-making at the Wisden Cricketer, to the ESPNcricinfo towers.