Australia 182 for 4 (Edwards 72, Uppal 33*) beat Afghanistan 181 (Ikram 80, Merlo 4-24) by six wickets
What was to be a spicy contest against spin turned into a no-contest with Australia steamrolling Afghanistan by six wickets at Hagley Oval to a secure a berth in Saturday's final in Mount Manganui. They will play the winner of Tuesday's second semi-final between India and Pakistan.
Afghanistan's decision to bat first backfired, as they were bowled out for 181 with medium pacer Jonathan Merlo picking four wickets. With their only hope of causing a stir in the Australian camp hinging on their mystery spinners, they unleashed Mujeeb Zadran, who on Sunday bagged an IPL contract worth USD 625,000, with the new ball. This move was met with a spectacular counter-attack from opener Jack Edwards, who smashed him for 14 in the eighth over on his way to a 40-ball half-century.
Australia lost Jason Sangha, the captain, and Merlo to Qais Ahmed's legspin, but Edwards' charge meant Australia were far too ahead to panic. Param Uppal and Nathan McSweeney batted with admirable maturity and composure in the face of Afghanistan's choke-by-spin tactic to share an unbroken 53-run stand. Uppal, who was the more dominant of the two, showcased his command of the pull shot in his unbeaten 32. The target was run down comfortably in 37.3 overs.
While the batsmen delivered box-office stuff, it was their new-ball pair of Zak Evans and Ryan Hadeley who caused early trouble for Afghanistan. Evans, who hit the deck hard, profited from the bounce on offer as he had Ibrahim Zadran top-edge a swirler to Hadley at fine leg to breakthrough early. Rahmatullah Gurbaz, who was reprieved on 6 when Evans put down a chance off his own bowling, built slowly in Ikram Ali Khil's company.
Legspinner Lloyd Pope, who became a star after his heroics against England, was welcomed into the attack in the 16th over by Ikram with a fierce sweep to deep square leg. That was Afghanistan's first attempt at raising the tempo, but the surge did not last long as Gurbaz became the first of three Afghanistan batsmen to be snuffed out down the leg side.
Gurbaz was the most unfortunate, playing a neat tickle down leg to Baxter Holt. Bahir Shah was tangled, looking to pull a short ball that stopped on him and brushed his glove to Holt, while Qais Ahmed got some bat - after completing an attempted pull off a short ball - to the wicketkeeper. In between these dismissals, however, Ikram showed excellent footwork, particularly against Pope to bring up a fighting half-century.
Confident and composed at the crease, Ikram was adept at picking Will Sutherland's slower variations and seemed set to bat through before an attempt to launch with 10 overs remaining led to his eventual downfall. From 146 for 7, the last three batsmen swung their bats, till Evans brought an end to the innings by dismissing Zahir Khan, who was caught by substitute Austin Waugh at mid-off.
Afghanistan started poorly with the ball as Darwish Rasooli put down a sitter at cover point to reprieve Edwards in the fourth over. That was the trigger for Edwards to lay into the bowlers, particularly Zadran. Edwards' fire blended well with captain Sangha's ice as the two went about milking the runs during the course of a 79-run stand for the second wicket. Sangha, in an attempt to drive on the up, chipped a simple return catch to Ahmed to give Afghanistan a sniff. When Merlo and Edwards fell in the space of 4 runs, Australia were in strife at 129 for 4. Suddenly, the ball was turning, bouncing and beating the batsmen. There were regular appeals for stumpings and runs were hard to come by.
Once Ahmed was seen off expertly, though, the rest of the chase turned into a cruise that gave Australia an opportunity to aim for a fourth Under-19 World Cup title.