Upbeat England wary of Afghanistan's threat
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Start time 1500 local (0930 GMT)
In their respective contests against South Africa in Mumbai, England and Afghanistan took huge personal strides towards their stated ambitions for the World T20 - progression to the knock-outs on the one hand, and the scalp of a major Test nation on the other. Now, in a tasty afternoon tussle at the Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi, the pair go head to head in a match that promises to be fraught with danger for the favourites.
It is not simply that Afghanistan ran both Sri Lanka and South Africa unfeasibly close in their first two games of the Super 10s. It is also the prospect of new and uncertain conditions in Delhi - a venue for the first time in the men's World T20 - that may alarm Eoin Morgan's team.
As they showed in their opening-round defeat to West Indies at Wankhede, England found it tough to gauge their pace when batting first in unfamiliar territory and fell some 30 runs shy of par; as Afghanistan showed in pursuing the unobtainable on Sunday, they won't care what anyone thinks they can achieve, they'll go out and give it some humpty anyway.
Asghar Stanikzai, Afghanistan's captain, claimed that his side's form was "scaring" the major nations, none of whom fancy being the first to come up short. England, of course, are no strangers to doing just that at the World T20, with memorable defeats to the Netherlands in 2009 and 2014. But Morgan was adamant that the mentality among the class of 2016 is light years removed from that most recent defeat in particular, which came in the wake of England's elimination from the tournament.
"The disappointment of being knocked out of a World Cup is horrific really, so coming into this game, we're really refreshed," he said. "Tomorrow's going to be about focussing on what we do and adapting to the conditions that are in front of us. If we do that, hopefully we'll perform well."
Spin has so far played an undervalued but vital part in the challenge that both sides have put together. England's duo, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali, kept their heads amid the onslaught against South Africa, prising key wickets and finding a means to tourniquet the bleeding in spite of the barrage of boundaries they were being subjected to. The same has been true of Afghanistan's slow-bowling contingent, who proved particularly tricky to dominate when they ran Sri Lanka close in Nagpur.
In a fast-paced tournament, slow and steady might yet carry the day. But it's fair to assume, given the riotous challenges we witnessed from both teams last week, that the side that wins the toss will be quite happy to ask their opponents to front up first.
(last five completed games most recent first)
In the spotlight
He's been quiet so far in the tournament to date, with only a low-key role in the chase at Wankhede, but Morgan's experience has been a valuable factor in England's progress, and tomorrow his knowhow will come in a slightly different form. As a former Ireland batsman, Morgan knows better than anyone how driven their opponents will be in this contest, and his cool head might prove particularly vital - with the bat, and in the field - as and when Afghanistan's sluggers and spinners come into their own.
Afghanistan's super-slugger, Mohammad Shahzad, is so exuberantly in the spotlight right now that he might as well come out to bat with a top hat and cane, and tap-dancing shoes. But the man who might yet have an even more vital role to play on Wednesday is the 17-year-old legspinner, Rashid Khan. At Mumbai on Sunday, he was hit by the Churchgate Express, AB de Villiers, who carted his final over for 29 match-changing runs. But up until that point, his first three overs had cost 22 and had been instrumental in clogging up South Africa's increasingly frustrated middle-order. He'll be older and wiser for the experience.
Morgan dropped a not-so-subtle hint about the likely casualty should England opt for Liam Dawson in a three-spin attack, when he stated that his team bats down to 10 … "and sometimes 11, given the circumstances". Given that Reece Topley, for all his promise as a left-arm seamer, is a disciple of the Devon Malcolm school of rearguards, his place is clearly on the line, and not simply because he looked all at sea during the Wankhede beanfests. Liam Plunkett could also challenge for his first start of the tournament. Alex Hales emerged as a late doubt after sitting out nets with back pain meaning James Vince is on standby.
England (probable) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Alex Hales/James Vince, 3 Joe Root, 4 Jos Buttler (wk), 5 Eoin Morgan (capt), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Adil Rashid, 9 Liam Dawson, 10 Chris Jordan, 11 David Willey.
After the formidable fighting spirit shown against South Africa, there seems little need for Afghanistan to shuffle the pack. The retention of the slow left-armer, Amir Hamza, would be prudent in support Rashid and Mohammad Nabi, given the reputation of the pitch.
Afghanistan (probable) 1 Mohammad Shahzad (wk), 2 Noor Ali Zadran, 3 Asghar Stanikzai (capt), 4 Mohammad Nabi, 5 Gulbadin Naib, 6 Samiullah Shenwari, 7 Najibullah Zadran, 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Dawlat Zadran, 10 Amir Hamza, 11 Shapoor Zadran.
Pitch and conditions
The Wankhede, England's home for the first two matches of the World T20, has been the outlier so far as the tournament's conditions are concerned. Delhi's surface seems far more likely to offer turn from the outset - there's been plenty on display in the nets so far. Morgan, citing his IPL experience, also reckons it will reward bowlers who hit the deck hard and seek natural variation, which again suggests that Plunkett might be useful - not to mention Shapoor Zadran.
Stats and Trivia
- England have played Afghanistan on two previous occasions at an ICC global event. Their first encounter came at Colombo in October 2012, during the World T20. England won by 116 runs, thanks to 99 not out from 55 balls from the long-forgotten Luke Wright.
- Their most recent clash was at Sydney in March 2015, in England's final contest of their miserable World Cup campaign. In a soggy, downbeat affair, Ian Bell signed off from ODI cricket with 52 not out from 56 balls in a nine-wicket win.
- England lost their most recent encounter with an Associate nation at the World T20, when the Netherlands crushed them by 45 runs in Chittagong.
"It's a bit like a pump-action shotgun. You can keep loading as long as you like. If you keep missing, it's fine. But the opportunity along the way will come. And if you have your day, you might win a game."
Eoin Morgan leans on his memories of life as an Ireland international cricketer to describe the mindset of Associates in Full Member match-ups.
"Definitely there will be big pressure on England looking to the last two games, so we are eager to win at least one of the next two, and that is our main ambition in the next two matches."
Asghar Shanikzai hopes to capitalise on England's nerves as they enter a match they can't afford to lose.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets @miller_cricket