Bowling-heavy Afghanistan seek to avoid complacency
March 8, 2016
Start time 1500 local (0930 GMT)
Since the start of 2015, Afghanistan have played 16 Twenty20 Internationals. They have won 13 of them and have the best win-loss ratio of any team in the world since then.
There is, of course, an asterisk next to those numbers. Afghanistan's opponents in those 16 matches were Netherlands, United Arab Emirates (twice), Scotland, Hong Kong (three times), Papua New Guinea, Oman (four times) and Zimbabwe (four times). None of those teams features in the top ten of the ICC T20I rankings.
That Afghanistan haven't had a chance to play any of the top sides is mostly down to the way the cricket calendar is structured, and partly down to their own habit of fluffing their lines at important moments. Having begun the qualifying stage of the Asia Cup as overwhelming favourites, they promptly lost to UAE, and lost the opportunity to test themselves against India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It was reminiscent of the first round of the 2014 World T20, where defeat to Nepal ended their chances of clashing against the big boys.
There should, therefore, be no complacency when Afghanistan prepare to meet Scotland, despite holding an 11-3 edge against them in their ODI and T20I meetings.
It took an epic escape act, engineered by Samiullah Shenwari, for Afghanistan to sneak a win when the two sides last met in a tournament of this stature, in Dunedin during the 2015 World Cup.
Scotland will start as underdogs for two reasons - the head-to-head record and the conditions. They have only won six of their 25 matches in Asia, and their seam-heavy bowling attack is unlikely to get too much help from the Nagpur pitch, which is likely to be a typically flat, subcontinental limited-overs surface rather than the minefield that hosted the India-South Africa Test in November.
Afghanistan have the edge, both in terms of genuine pace, with an attack comprising Dawlat Zadran, and the recently recalled new-ball duo of Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan, as well as spin, with options in Amir Hamza's left-arm darts and Rashid Khan's low-slung legbreaks.
Afghanistan's batting, however, remains something of a weakness, with their line-up often unable to recover from early setbacks. Scotland's best chance, therefore, is to strike with the new ball and put the middle order under pressure.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Majid Haq is not a part of Scotland's squad and hasn't been since being sent back from the 2015 World Cup for disciplinary reasons. In the absence of their leading wicket-taker in international cricket, and in conditions where spin is likely to play a crucial role, 19-year-old Mark Watt will need to make an impact with his left-arm orthodox spin.
Gulbadin Naib is that rare T20 batsman who hits with immense power but hits down the ground. His talent often goes underutilised, with Afghanistan tending to send him in at No. 6 or 7. However, of late, they have toyed with batting him up the order. He made a blistering half-century the last time he batted at No. 3, only to be demoted to the lower middle order again. There is a chance, though, that Afghanistan will have a rethink come World T20: Naib batted at No. 3 in their warm-up match against Netherlands, and struck 23 off 14 balls before he was run out.
Hamid Hassan is back in Afghanistan's squad for the first time since July 2015, and bowled his full quota of four overs against Netherlands. Whether they play both Hamid and Shapoor Zadran, who has also returned after a long spell out of the side, could depend on the pitch, with left-arm spinner Amir Hamza likely to take one of their places if turn is expected.
Afghanistan (probable): 1 Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 2 Noor Ali Zadran, 3 Asghar Stanikzai (capt), 4 Karim Sadiq, 5 Najibullah Zadran, 6 Mohammad Nabi, 7 Gulbadin Naib, 8 Dawlat Zadran, 9 Rashid Khan, 10 Hamid Hassan, 11 Shapoor Zadran/Amir Hamza
Scotland have a fairly settled line-up, and the composition of their bowling attack could depend on conditions, with the No. 7 slot looking like a toss-up between Rob Taylor's left-arm seam and Michael Leask's offspin.
Scotland (probable): 1 Kyle Coetzer, 2 Calum MacLeod, 3 Matthew Cross (wk), 4 Matt Machan, 5 Richie Berrington, 6 Preston Mommsen (capt), 7 Michael Leask/Rob Taylor, 8 Josh Davey, 9 Safyaan Sharif, 10 Mark Watt, 11 Alasdair Evans.
Pitch and conditions
The strip laid out for the India-South Africa Test in November earned the VCA Stadium an official warning from the ICC. It's unlikely that the surfaces hosting the World T20 games will provide the spinners remotely as much assistance. ODI totals at the ground are a more reliable indicator of what to expect - in 14 innings, teams have crossed 290 ten times.
Stats and trivia
- Mohammad Shahzad (1145 runs in T20Is) has scored more than twice as many runs as Afghanistan's second-highest T20I run-getter, Asghar Stanikzai (552).
- Afghanistan have a 5-0 record against Scotland in T20Is.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo