Ireland wary of Afghanistan adventure
If Ireland need any reminders of the dangers posed by Afghanistan's cricketers as they prepare for a pair of critical World Cup qualifiers in Clontarf this week, they need only recall Boyd Rankin's opening delivery when the sides met in the World Twenty20 qualifying final in Dubai back in March.
Rankin's first ball was fast and straight, but Karim Sadiq stepped out to clatter it over long on for six. Rankin's irritation at being treated in such a manner, despite his considerable speed, was to be demonstrated by the angry spell that followed, and he would claim Sadiq's wicket when a bouncer rebounded from helmet to stumps.
Ireland went on to win that match thanks to a 17-ball fifty by Paul Stirling, the second fastest in Twenty20 international history, so ensuring they avoided their near neighbours England and India in Sri Lanka in September, instead joining a group with Australia and West Indies.
But the memory of Sadiq's fearlessness has stayed with them. Afghanistan are in Dublin for World Cup qualifiers on July 3 and 5, this time in the 50-over format, and Ireland remain wary of their uninhibited style, while also recognising it may be a key to ensuring their defeat. As for Rankin, he is out injured, so will not have to risk further affront.
Ed Joyce, the former England batsman who is now a senior member of the Ireland side, said the lessons of the Dubai final would be used in these matches. Ireland are currently top of the ICC World Cricket League, which acts as the World Cup qualifying tournament, on run-rate, while Afghanistan sit in fifth, four points behind. The opportunity to close the gap is a vital one for the visitors, and Joyce expected their play to be characterised by the impudence with which Rankin's first ball was treated.
"He was bowling at 85-90 miles an hour and their opener just ran at him and hit it back over his head for six, which didn't go down too well with Boyd," Joyce told ESPNcricinfo. "But that was how they played their whole game. You live and die by the sword, and they had some pretty poor dismissals if you were looking at it in a game-plan sort of way, but if you're going to play fearlessly you're going to sometimes look a bit silly.
"They have some good players, the keeper Mohameed Shehzad is a very good player and he played a top innings, full of those bigger shots, but he batted within himself as well and knew exactly what he was doing. By all accounts they have three or four lads who do that, so they can afford three or four of the other guys to be a bit more fearless in their strokeplay.
"We are a streetwise team, we don't have a huge amount of experience against Afghanistan, but we have a lot of guys who've played a lot of county cricket and I'd like to think that on any one day two or three of us can build an innings and get a score. We're a good bowling attack as well. I'd like to think we know our conditions in Ireland a little better than they will."
Rankin's absence with a stress fracture in his foot opens a chance for the Middlesex seamer Tim Murtagh to take the new ball. Murtagh was part of the team that lined up against Australia in Belfast, a rain-ruined affair curtailed to 10.4 overs.
Afghanistan will also be missing a frontline bowler as the slippery Hamid Hassan misses out due to a leg injury. The captain, Nowroz Mangal, has been ruled out for six weeks with a serious finger injury, leaving Sadiq to take up the captaincy role in his absence.
Ireland will also lean heavily on the left-arm spin of George Dockrell, who has shown composure beyond his years both for his country and also for Somerset in county cricket this year, where he has scooped 30 wickets at 25.60 despite damp conditions.
"George has a huge amount of weight on his shoulders for a 19-year-old, and he's an incredibly impressive young bloke," Joyce said. "For such a young guy he sticks to his game-plan really well and he backs himself. He doesn't mind the ball getting hit for six, he comes back strong from it, and I think that is what they're finding out down in Somerset as well.
"He is a massive player for us. Particularly as we are missing someone like Boyd, he'll almost become our most experienced campaigner."
Ireland continue to pick up new admirers, in addition to those swept up in some heady times in the last two World Cup tournaments. In Afghanistan they face a team equally admired, as much for the fortitude that has been required to build a team in the face of the adversity in the country as for an indomitable spirit the team has exhibited in playing the game.
"There's a huge amount of admiration for them, for the fact they've got to the point where they're playing in the T20 qualifying final and in the T20 World Cup and people are talking about them in such high esteem," Joyce said. "When the England lads played against the Associate World XI before the Pakistan series, three or four of the Afghans were playing, and they were probably the most outstanding players.
"It's an incredible achievement to get to where they have, and it would be great to see the game grow in Afghanistan, not just to have another country playing strong cricket, but also for their country, a war-torn country at the moment, and it'd be great if cricket could play some part in the growth and regeneration of it.
"But come the game, though, I don't think we'll really be thinking about that. They play their cricket very hard and will be wanting to win as much as we will."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here