Scotland's status hangs by a thread
Afghanistan 279 (Khan 92, Mangal 72) beat Scotland 237 (Coetzer 91, Hamilton 71) by 42 runs
Afghanistan held their own against one of the pre-tournament favourites, Scotland, in a tense and impressive 42-run win in Benoni, successfully defending 280. With 92 from Karim Khan and a spirited effort in the outfield, where they took several athletic and clean chances, Afghanistan left Scotland the nail-biting task of needing to beat UAE on Friday if they are to retain their financially crucial ODI status. International cricket might be coming to Kabul after all, and the final round of matches will provide a fitting denouement to an exciting two weeks.
Scotland have been a disappointment all tournament. Unlike their nearest neighbours, Ireland, whose coattails they have chased in the last four years, Scotland's batting in the past two weeks has been too brittle to chase down anything competitive. And when Afghanistan marched off the field with 279, it left Scotland needing to post their highest total of the tournament.
That they came reasonably close owed much to Kyle Coetzer, who made 91, and Gavin Hamilton's 71, the pair putting on 133 in a nicely-paced partnership. Coetzer, who turned 25 yesterday, was strong off front and back foot, flicking Shapoor Zadran for consecutive fours and clouting Khaleqdaad Noori for the most nonchalant of sixes to bring up his patient 92-ball fifty. Hamilton provided stabilising support though he was savage on anything too short, as Mohammad Nabi found when he was elegantly lofted over long-on.
With twenty overs remaining, however, Scotland were up against it with 158 needed at nearly eight-per-over. Coetzer took on the challenge in thrilling style, lofting and driving the surprisingly wayward Hamid Hassan for three fours in succession before holing out to Karim Khan at gully. And it was now that Afghanistan stepped up a notch. Neil McCallum was expertly caught by Raees Ahmadzai at deep square leg, swooping to his right to take a grass-cutter out of the sun, before Hassan made up for his disappointing spell with a wonderfully judged dive at long-on to remove Hamilton.
As the pressure mounted, Scotland crumbled; the run-rate now climbing beyond 11-per-over, panic inevitably set in but Afghanistan's bowlers gave little away, bowling a disciplined line and were athletic and alive in the field. Shapoor, a lively, accurate and tall left-arm seamer, finished with 3 for 36 and is one to keep a very close eye on in the future. Afghanistan are still outsiders to reach the final six and achieve ODI status but their cricket continues to improve with every tournament and they fully outplayed Scotland today.
Disappointing with the bat, Scotland were equally lackadaisical in the field. Noor Ali (24 from 42 balls) and the enjoyably unconfined Karim Khan smacked 57 for the opening wicket. Karim's 92 was an innings of maturity from a fiery and competitive individual determined to take on the world. The clean-striking of his 10 fours - exuberant uppercuts over the slips and two savage pulls off Dewald Nel - spoke volumes for his talent, but said more about Scotland's own misguided tactic of short-pitched bowling. Shoulders drooped in the outfield, and several singles were easily converted into twos by Afghanistan, prompting angry kicks at the turf from Scotland's wicketkeeper.
Nowroz Mangal again stood up with a captain's innings of 72, hammering the hapless Jan Stander for the day's most authoritative drive straight back past the bowler. Afghanistan's major issue to work on is their middle order, which again misfired as they lost 3 for 4 in 10 balls, but Mangal was able to chivvy the tail along until he fell in the 48th over.
In the end, a target of 280 was plenty and, not for the first time in this tournament, Afghanistan outplayed and out-thought a team ranked far higher. Their chance of gaining full ODI status is by no means a fantasy, while Scotland's own standing as one of the six Associates hangs by a thread that will survive or be severed on Friday when they take on UAE.
"I am very happy at the moment that my team won against a team like Scotland, who are one of the big teams in the tournament and who have played in two World Cups," Karim said after the game. "It was very hard batting today and I was very disappointed to miss out on my century. But it was good to get two wickets as well. I am hoping that I can score a century on Friday as I want to give Afghanistan a big chance of getting to the World Cup."
Afghanistan coach Kabir Khan said that the result showed that "it wasn't a fluke that we got through the World Cup qualifying rounds."
"I have always had faith in my batting order and I have always maintained they are very good batters," he said. "They are very quick learners and in the first round they saw how the top players play an innings under pressure and that is what they are doing in the Super Eight stage. We are making some really good scores against the top teams and if we keep playing the way we are playing then we can beat Namibia."
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo