Australia brace for Afghanistan mystery spin

Jason Sangha gets down on one knee to clobber one through the off side IDI/Getty Images

No sooner had Lloyd Pope sealed a dramatic semi-final berth for Australia at the Under-19 World Cup that his captain Jason Sangha made a request. It wasn't about extending the team's curfew time so that they could have a bit of fun. He wanted "assistance or footage" of Afghanistan. He wanted information on Mujeeb Zadran, who runs in like a medium-pacer and bowls a mix of offspin, legspin, googly and a carom ball and Zahir Khan, the left-arm wristspinner.

The hype around Mujeeb, in particular, is substantial. A few hours after Australia's training session had ended, the 16-year old was bought for an astonishing USD 625,000 by Kings XI Punjab to play the Indian Premier League. So you can see where Sangha is coming from.

Only video of Under-19 players is hard to come by because most matches at this level are simply not televised. Analysts have been spending long workhours poring through every last bit of available footage to help their batsmen understand the angles Mujeeb creates and the variations he carries.

Even as recently as two years ago, a match between Australia and Afghanistan would have been like David facing Goliath. The two sides have only ever played three games across formats and at any level: in Sharjah in 2012, at the Under-19 World Cup in 2014 and the World Cup in 2015.

Mitchell Starc destroyed them with a four-for the first time. Three years later, David Warner helped himself to 178 to set up a bruising win. In between, however, Afghanistan had Australia in trouble, with Sharafuddin Ashraf, a left-arm spinner and Abdullah Adil, right-arm seamer who turned to cutters, picking up seven wickets between them to orchestrate a collapse. It is unlikely Sangha would even be aware of that instance.

Australia chose to have an optional net session ahead of the game, especially after undergoing two rigorous sessions on Friday and Saturday, with plenty of focus on spin even if not of the mystery kind. Sangha admitted to being unaware of what Afghanistan's spin bowling make-up, but emphasised that his team wasn't influenced by how other teams have approached them in the tournament.

"We've been looking at some footage, but the more we get worked into how good their spinners are, it's going to not make us play our best brand of cricket," he said. "Batting is about watching the ball, so as long as we keep watching their spinners and play accordingly, it will be a good challenge.

"We haven't faced them before and we can only see so much on camera. We don't know too much about them, but the best thing about the World Cup is embracing the unexpected. The more we focus on them and what they have, we won't go well. If we focus on the Australian way of fearless and aggressive cricket, we will be fine."

Afghanistan's preparation for this event started in September last year, when they toured Bangladesh and won 3-1 with Mujeeb picking 17 wickets, the most in a bilateral Youth ODI series. In November, they beat Pakistan to emerge as Asia Cup champions. Prior to that, they had a two-week residential camp in Chennai followed by practice matches against the senior team in Greater Noida.

To top up such meticulous work, they arrived in New Zealand on December 18 and played four warm-up games against New Zealand's Central Districts to ensure their players were in prime form for the World Cup. Every member of the squad has had multiple opportunities on tour.

"We played in Napier where India came after. So we played the same side that the Indians played against, two or three weeks earlier when they were fresher," the head coach Andy Moles said. "It worked out excellent for us. We played four games - none were rained off so we got good, hard fixtures, I got a chance to rotate my squad and it was excellent against the Central Districts A team."

Victories over Pakistan and Sri Lanka in what was a tough group led to a quarter-final berth, where they humbled hosts New Zealand. The mood at training was understandably light, with players showing little trace of being overawed by the prospect of playing former champions. "Australia are favourites," Moles declared. "But probably not as much favourites as they were last week, especially after watching us against New Zealand. We have a very good team and I'll make it clear that we have come here to win. In saying that, we are not arrogant to say we will win. We have a chance if we beat them during the crucial stages of the match.

"At the Under-19 level, the biggest issue is consistency and I will be looking to get the players to show the same discipline and consistency in all three departments. I will stress Australia are the favourites, but if we have a good day we are more than capable of beating them."