Gopal and Saqib steer UAE to victory
UAE 257 for 5 (Gopal 81, Saqib 69, Aslam 47*) beat Afghanistan 251 for 8 (Stanikzai 69, Nowroz 46, Zahid 4-59) by five wickets
A team of baggage handlers and bursars overwhelmed the romantics' choice Afghanistan, beating them by five wickets thanks to a composed 81 from Nithin Gopal and an impressive all-round performance from their bowlers. Chasing 252, UAE lost a couple of quick wickets with 20 overs to spare, but were guided home safely by Saqib Ali's 69. It was quite a comeback for a side that was rolled for just 79 last week. The defeat, however, does not eliminate Afghanistan from the Super Eights, though the World Cup dream is now more unlikely than ever.
During Afghanistan's staccato-like innings, Colin Wells, the former Sussex and England allrounder now coaching UAE, confidently told Cricinfo that his side would chase 250 or more without so much as breaking sweat. Given their performance against Denmark, against whom they smashed 379 for 6, this claim was far from outlandish. UAE again showed great confidence at the crease, and were particularly effective against the spinners. Wells' preparations for this tournament amounted to just three weeks of honing his side of amateurs but, as they showed in the ICC Intercontinental Cup, his is a side brimming with raw talent.
Their chase began horribly, however, when Amjad Javed - who carved 164 a few days ago - was bowled first ball by Shapoor Zadran, a towering left-armer who would be a handful in juicier conditions. Afghanistan's confidence was short-lived, however, as Arshad Ali and Gopal combined in a match-seizing second-wicket stand of 117. Gopal impressed through the off-side, though both he and Ashad were gifted too many full-tosses which were confidently flicked through midwicket. On several occasions, deft nudges beat fine-leg who was too fine, too short, or too asleep.
Afghanistan's fielding was a disappointment, having excelled against Bermuda earlier in the competition, though Shafiqullah did pull off a slick pick-up-and-throw from mid-off to dismiss Ali. Gopal, too, fell when a hundred was there for the taking when Hamid Hassan - who Bermuda's captain, Irvine Romaine, last week claimed was the quickest bowler in the tournament - had him caught behind. And there was further joy for Afghanistan when Khurram Khan chipped one back to Mohammad Nabi, leaving UAE needing 92 from 17 overs. Saqib was merciless on anything short, however, and hammered seven fours in his bristling knock, while Naeemuddin Aslam leant back and hammered a six to seal the win.
In contrast Afghanistan's batting lacked substance; Asghar Stanikzai's patient 69 from 107 balls helped them survive two early blows, but only Nowroz Mangal's 46 gave him meaningful support. UAE's fielding was slick and alert, despite Wells' irritation from the boundary edge, and Zahid Shah's medium pacers earned him 4 for 59 from 10 overs in what was a tidy display by their attack.
However, Afghanistan's coach Kabir Khan was pleased with his side making the Super Eight stage. "This is a great achievement for us," Kabir said. "We came from Division 5 and now we have left behind us one team that played in the last World Cup [Bermuda] and two sides that were in Division 2 [Denmark and Oman] as well as Uganda which qualified with us from Division 3 so we are delighted with the progress we are making. It's a great moment.
"Our first target was to get in the top eight. Now we have set our sights on the top six because that will bring ODI status for four years. Qualifying for the World Cup will be very difficult as we will have to win all four games probably but that dream is deep inside me. Anything can happen and we have not given up hope. We don't know how to give up hope."
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo