Mujeeb Ur Rahman leads the way as Afghanistan snuff out Ireland again
Afghanistan 227 for 9 (Naib 64, Shahidi 54, Murtagh 4-31, Rankin 3-44) beat Ireland 198 (Balbirnie 55, Wilson 38, Alam 2-34, Rashid 2-41) by 29 runs
Once again on their 2018 tour of Ireland, Afghanistan's bowlers asserted their might over the home team's batsmen, to leave them stumbling to a 29-run defeat in the opening ODI in Belfast. This is hardly the first time it has happened - both games in the T20I series followed the same script. And yet, this defeat will hurt Ireland, not least because their bowlers had done splendidly to shut the doors on a late surge when Afghanistan had batted. Five wickets for 16 runs in the last seven overs had left Ireland with 228 to get - a chaseable target on most surfaces against most bowling attacks. But throughout this tour, Afghanistan, with the variety and skill in their spin-bowling arsenal, have shown they aren't like most bowling attacks.
Rashid Khan wasn't even much of a factor for most of the chase - he took the last two wickets, both in the 49th over - and yet, Afghanistan hardly broke a sweat in their defence. By the time Mujeeb Ur Rahman, their best bowler of the day, was done with his quota, the required rate had shot up to eight an over. On a pitch as treacherously slow as this one, it was a done deal.
The only period during which Ireland looked like they were on top was in the first over, when Paul Stirling found the boundary twice. And even then, one of them was off an inside edge. Mujeeb came on at the other end and conceded just three, and straightaway the choke was on.
It meant Ireland had try and to capitalise on marginal errors, a tough ask on an uncooperative surface for batsmen. The batsmen had to force their shots, and Stirling and William Porterfield both fell caught behind trying to do just that.
Those early wickets were just the catalyst Afghanistan needed to choke the opposition out. The avoidable run-out of Niall O'Brien only made things harder for Ireland. At 54 for 3 after 18 overs, Afghanistan were ready to seize control. Rashid hadn't even come on yet.
When he did eventually, in the 23rd over, Ireland were in the middle of their best partnership of the innings, between Andy Balbirnie and Simi Singh.
Simi had walked out with the clear plan of upsetting the spinners' line by taking big strides across and sweeping from well outside off stump. Not only did it give him some cushion against the lbw, it kept Ireland's score ticking over. But when he fell, it was to a straight-bat shot, Mohammad Nabi's offbreak bowling him off his inside edge.
Balbirnie fought on to compile a gritty half-century before top-edging a sweep off Mujeeb to short fine leg. At the end of that over, the 34th, Ireland's required rate was 6.12; by the time Mujeeb was done, eight overs later, it had shot up to 8.12.
When Afghanistan batted, Ireland alternated between sharp and sloppy. Hazratullah Zazai, who had pulverized Ireland in the T20Is, was dropped by Stirling at second slip off the seventh ball of the innings. But luckily for Ireland, it didn't cost them much.
In extremely windy, almost stormy conditions, their bowlers did superbly to run in and hit the deck hard, causing Afghanistan discomfort with the short ball. One such delivery accounted for Zazai, who failed to get on top of the bounce and sent a leading edge to cover. In an early sign of the two-paced nature of the surface, each of the first three wickets arrived via the leading edge.
But after coming out on top of the early exchanges, Ireland slackened, allowing the middle order to settle in. Gulbadin Naib and Rahmat Shah began the repair work with a 53-run third-wicket stand. Naib added a further 77 with Hashmatullah Shahidi on his way to a half-century.
Naib fell to a dodgy lbw call in the 36th over, the ball from Boyd Rankin seeming to hit him quite high on the back thigh. Around then, Ireland began pulling things back. Afghanistan seemed all too content to knock the ball around and wait for a loose over. Ireland's bowlers kept them waiting, and Afghanistan collected just 16 runs between overs 35 and 40.
This wasn't the typical one-day surface that would produce 100 runs in the last 10 overs, even if a team had wickets in hand, and Afghanistan found that out the hard way. Attempts at acceleration were short-lived, lasting no more than a few deliveries. By the time Shahidi had brought up a well-compiled half-century, the slide was well underway, as Afghanistan went from 197 for 4 to 213 for 9. But where Ireland's bowlers were excellent in the early and closing stages of the innings, Afghanistan's bowlers were relentless throughout, and it proved the difference.
Akshay Gopalakrishnan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo