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March 15, 2014
Until the 2012 World T20, little was at stake for Afghanistan, but now, when they line up to play their third edition of the tournament, expectations have risen. Afghanistan have qualified for the 50-overs World Cup and completed an impressive Asia Cup in which they beat a Test-playing team for the first time. That team, Bangladesh, are their first opponents in their qualifying group. With this in mind, Afghanistan should consider themselves in with a real chance of getting into the business end of the tournament.
Afghanistan's captain Mohammad Nabi has hinted that the team is at its strongest playing Twenty20. This was quite clear even at the Asia Cup, where their batsmen often fell playing one big shot too many. That approach will better suit the T20 format, and Mohammad Shahzad, their exciting wicketkeeper-batsman, will enjoy this license at the top of the order. Either Nawroz Mangal or the newcomer Najeeb Tarakai will partner Shehzad, while the middle order might include the likes of Karim Sadiq and Shafiqullah, who didn't feature during the Asia Cup.
Their bowling is full of variety, and over recent months has gained a lot of discipline. Shapoor Zadran, the tall left-arm seamer, now bowls an impeccable line, while medium-pacer Mirwais Ashraf has shown himself to be very difficult to get away. In Hamza Hotak, Samiullah Shenwari and Nabi, Afghanistan possess some genuine spin options, with the left-armer Hotak capable of taking the new ball.
In the warm-up games, their performances were inconsistent. They shot out Netherlands for 86, but allowed Zimbabwe to chase down 168 with three balls to spare. It was a bit of a downer, but their batsmen had shown the ability to post daunting totals.
Samiullah Shenwari is the trump card of Afghanistan's batting line-up in the lower middle order and can be dangerous with his leg-spin. He was the third-highest wicket-taker in the World T20 Qualifier and one of only four players to claim a five-for in the tournament. He picked up as many as three Man-of-the-Match awards during the tournament, as well as the Player-of-the-Tournament award.
What Afghanistan need is an assured and brisk start from the top and the uncapped Najeeb Tarakai might just be the man for the job alongside Mohammad Shahzad.
Winning matches is an art and Afghanistan lack the finishing touch. On their day they can overwhelm any team in the world but they have shown the tendency to let important moments slip, as they showed against Pakistan during the Asia Cup. Their batting line-up, meanwhile, has the potential to self-destruct.
World T20 history
The story of Afghanistan's extraordinary rise is well known. They first qualified in 2010 and lost all their matches by a fair margin but bounced back to give India a bit of a scare in 2012. They might have failed to advance from the group stage in their last two campaigns but with every game they played, their improvement was evident. They earned a place in this year's edition after finishing runners-up at the qualifying event in the UAE, losing to Ireland by 68 runs in the final.
Afghanistan are brimming with energy and confidence after beating Bangladesh in the Asia Cup. Having spent some time in Bangladesh as part of that event, and spent a month before that at a preparatory camp in Sri Lanka, they will be familiar with the conditions. In the warm-ups, Afghanistan beat Netherlands by 35 runs but lost their next game to Zimbabwe despite setting them a daunting target of 169.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. He tweets hereFeeds: Umar Farooq
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