Billcliff dashes Afghanistan dreams
Canada 268 for 4 (Billcliff 96*, Bagai 68) beat Afghanistan 265 for 8 (Noor Ali 122, Cheema 3-41)
A mature and bruising 96 from Ian Billcliff helped Canada maintain their impressive form at the top of the table, beating Afghanistan by six wickets on a stiflingly warm day at the picturesque LC de Villiers Oval in Pretoria.
Afghanistan's confidence seemingly knew no bounds before today. Prior to this tournament, they didn't simply aim to reach the 2011 World Cup: they expected to. This watertight belief in their own ability has won them fans, and matches - epitomised by their romantic victory over favourites Ireland two days ago. Today was a much-needed lesson in lessening their expectations to something a little realistic, and confirmation that dreams are made and squashed on the pitch. Afghanistan's hopes of reaching the World Cup are now practically over.
They nevertheless stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Canada for most of the match, and their defeat came in spite of a fine 122 from Noor Ali, the cornerstone of Afghanistan's impressive-reading 265 for 8. The pitch, however, has produced scores in excess of 300 this season and again, today, it offered little seam or swing to trouble the batsmen, though Canada did reduce their opponents to 69 for 2. Ali and his captain, Nowroz Mangal (49 from 69), then steadied Afghanistan in a patient third-wicket stand of 118, taking advantage of Canada's surprisingly poor fielding. Henry Osinde's hapless fumble at fine-leg produced roars of disappointment from the injured John Davison on the boundary-edge, and the bowler later dropped the dolly of all dollies off his own bowling.
Yet they fought back impressively in the second half of the innings and, after Ali brought up a compact 127-ball hundred, Afghanistan began to implode, losing 3 for 2 in 13 balls as Rizwan Cheema bowled a disciplined line and nagging length. The tail failed to wag, though that Afghanistan managed to reach a total in excess of 250 represented a recovery of sorts.
Canada then got off a flier with Geoff Barnett and Rizwan Cheema smacking 67 in eight overs of batting that snapped Afghanistan's rather brittle confidence in half. Hamid Hassan, who blitzed Ireland two days ago, was taken for 32 in three surprisingly wayward overs while Mangal was introduced into the attack and promptly thwacked out of it, conceding 19 from his two overs. Cheema, a compact batsman, flicked four over midwicket and two further sixes to boost Canada's run-rate.
Afghanistan fought back with three quick wickets but then Billcliff took over in an uncompromising display of power hitting, cracking eight fours and two huge sixes. Karim Sadiq persisted in dropping it too short and, with Billcliff spending most of his innings on the back foot, was subsequently hammered. Not content with carving over extra cover, he was just as adept at nudging twos past mid-off to keep the score ticking over, and he ran Afghanistan ragged.
Seventy-seven were needed from 78 and alongside Billcliff was Ashish Bagai, the pair putting on a match-winning stand of 148. All three of Bagai's fours were cleanly struck, but his uppercut for six over third man really stole the show as the asking-rate dipped from tricky to facile - 58 from the final ten overs.
The raucousness with which Canada celebrated was justified and understandable. They are marching into the final four and that cherished World Cup spot.
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo