Afghanistan stay alive after spinners' brilliance sets up narrow win
Afghanistan 198 for 7 (Rahmat 68, Nabi 31, Holder 3-39, Paul 2-29) beat West Indies 197 for 8 (Hope 43, Samuels 36, Mujeeb 3-33, Nabi 2-43)
Afghanistan nearly bottled what should have been a straightforward chase of 198, but the insurance provided by the brilliance of their spinners just about bailed them out in their Super-Sixes clash against West Indies. Throughout the 47.4 overs that the chase lasted, it always seemed like Afghanistan would pull this off one way or the other. And yet, they never managed to eliminate the apprehension that accompanied as one batsman after the other perished in their dash towards an early finish.
Where a cool head and common sense was the demand of the hour - the asking rate was always in control - rash judgement and impulsive strokeplay took over. In the end, they managed to hang in there, scraping through by three wickets, to hand West Indies their first defeat of the tournament, and keep their own campaign alive.
The second-innings indiscretions were a far cry from the top-class performance that their spinners put in. Facing a must-win in every remaining match, Afghanistan presented their best selves yet in the tournament to rein in a powerful West Indies line-up.
The circumstances couldn't be seemingly any more averse to bowling. These were pristine batting conditions, with the sun beating down on the Harare Sports Club, and a surface that came with a thin layer of sheen. To add to that, West Indies were coming into the game with an average first-innings score of 307 in the tournament. But Afghanistan's opening pair of pacer Dawlat Zadran and offspinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman demonstrated the old adage: well-begun is half-done.
Having seized the early advantage with the wicket of Chris Gayle, Afghanistan were relentless. Mujeeb's 3 for 33 underpinned what ended up being a spin-dominated innings, with as many as 39 overs coming from the slow bowlers. Mohammad Nabi became the first Afghanistan bowler to 100 ODI wickets, as West Indies limped to an underwhelming 197 for 8.
Mujeeb and Dawlat complemented each other perfectly. While Dawlat had the West Indies batsmen on a leash by continually probing away in the channel outside off, Mujeeb flummoxed them with a whole array of variants. Inside his first two overs, West Indies had been subjected to conventional offbreaks, carrom balls, topspinners, and a googly that smashed the top of an unsuspecting Gayle's off stump.
It wasn't until the eighth over, when Evin Lewis swept Mujeeb hard through fine leg for the first of four fours in nine balls, that West Indies began to find momentum.
That was, however, immediately snuffed out by Nabi, who struck with his first ball. Nabi's delivery came on with the arm and hit Shimron Hetmyer's pad, but not before it had brushed the inside edge that the umpire had failed to spot.
Lewis' misjudgment in calling for a suicidal single in the next over had him run out to a direct throw from Najibullah Zadran as Afghanistan further established their ascendancy - reinforced by the fact that Rashid Khan, the team's best bowler, made his first appearance as late as the 23rd over.
Marlon Samuels and Shai Hope arrested the slide with a 55-run fourth-wicket stand, but it was an association where a lack of strike-rotation was all too evident. With the duo progressing at three to the over, Rashid could afford to hold Mujeeb back for a third spell.
West Indies' only bright passage came during Jason Holder's burst of 28, but he fell to a sharp catch by Najibullah at long-on off Mujeeb that sent them right back into their shell. Hope, who survived an extremely close leg before shout against Rashid on 18, barely made Afghanistan feel the pinch. He alone ate up 55 dots, and picked an inopportune moment to get out - in the 43rd over, with West Indies searching for acceleration, when he was the set batsman.
Like Afghanistan, West Indies' bowlers were sharp and accurate to begin with. Keemo Paul, the debutant, struck with his first legal delivery, getting Javed Ahmadi to play all around a length ball that straightened, and trapped him leg before. But the rash strokes began costing them soon after, Mohammad Shahzad slashing a wide delivery to cover.
Rahmat Shah then played the most important knock of Afghanistan's innings. His trio of boundaries off Carlos Brathwaite in the 14th over signaled that Afghanistan were getting a move on. He found two able partners - first in Samiullah Shenwari, with whom he added 66 for the third wicket, and then in Mohammad Nabi, who helped him add 49 for the fourth wicket.
It took a brilliant diving catch by Hetmyer at deep square leg to end the second of those associations. In their 93-ball association, the duo had played out nearly 10 overs of dots. Still, with 66 needed off 84 balls with six wickets in hand, this was Afghanistan's game to lose.
Rahmat continued to eat away at the target until, in trying to force a cut, he picked out backward point. Now, Afghanistan were feeling the jitters for the first time in the chase. Najibullah and Gulbadin Naib took them closer with handy cameos, but perished to profligate shots. It was Afghanistan's batting depth that eventually got the job done: Rashid, with an ODI average of 21, bats at No. 8; he saw them through.
West Indies were culpable of their own share of lapses. They dropped catches of Rahmat, Shenwari, Nabi and Rashid. In all, the reprieves cost them 58 runs: damage that is irreversible when you're defending 197.
Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo