Spirited Nepal trip up Afghanistan
Nepal 141 for 5 (Khakurel 56, Vesawkar 37) beat Afghanistan 132 for 8 (Stanikzai 49, Mukhiya 3-18) by nine runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Nepal have long had an army of fans back home but at this World T20 they have been on a recruitment drive. In their maiden global tournament, they have played with skill and passion, confirming their status as one of the most exciting teams in world cricket's second tier. Even when you consider Ireland's potential progress from Group B, Nepal's performance has been one of the most powerful endorsements of the ICC's decision to expand the competition.
They set another marker at the Zahur Ahmed Chowdhury Stadium, beating Afghanistan for the first time in T20s. A 50-over win in the ACC Trophy ten years ago had been their only previous success against a side that has been one of the strongest Associates over the last five years. Afghanistan had come into the tournament hoping to upset a top-level side or two but they will depart knowing that the competition around them has increased.
As ever, inspiration came from Paras Khadka, Nepal's captain. Despite a failure with the bat, he claimed two towering catches, the second diving flat out to remove the dangerous Samiullah Shenwari in the penultimate over, with 27 required. Asghar Stanikzai kept the game alive by hitting fours from the first, second and fourth ball of the final over but, with 10 still needed, he holed out to long-on and Nepal could breathe.
The close nature of the game also means Bangladesh are all but assured of a place in round two; not only would they have to lose to bottom-placed Hong Kong, their run rate would need to drop by a huge 1.753 in order for Nepal to leap over them.
Afghanistan were in trouble by the fifth over, when Jitendra Mukhiya took wickets with consecutive balls to leave them 20 for 3 in pursuit of another Nepal total that was useful rather than intimidating. Karim Sadiq had already been bowled by Sompal Kami and, after Mohammad Shahzad had been caught slogging at third man, the other frontline batsman, Najibullah Zadran, chipped Mukhiya's next ball at chest height to mid-on.
Shafiqullah, who finished the match against Hong Kong in barbarous fashion on Tuesday, took three consecutive fours off Basant Regmi but the spinner had his revenge in the 15th over, leaving Afghanistan 83 for 6.
Nepal's other left-arm tweaker, Shakti Gauchan, claimed two wickets in an over for the second time in the tournament. First, Nawroz Mangal's huge top edge flew into a space between short fine-leg and deep backward square. Khadka sprinted from the ring towards the boundary to take a fine catch over his shoulder. Gauchan's gloriously uninhibited celebration was on display again moments later as he claimed Mohammad Nabi lbw, although the decision looked a little hard on the batsman.
Nepal batted first in all of their three matches and each innings has been delicately crafted with a few obvious flaws. Their batsmen are neat and tidy but lack the power to regularly clear the boundary - or maybe they are just used to the ball flying further in the thin mountain air.
Subash Khakurel, who made the first half-century by a Nepal player at the tournament, absorbed 23 dot balls during his innings but managed to increase the tempo after trading in nudges and dabs early on. His half-century came up off 48 balls with a slice through backward point and included one resourceful scoop for six but he fell trying to go aerial in the penultimate over, bowled by Shapoor Zadran.
That ended a stand worth 76 with Sharad Vesawkar, who struck some meaty bottom-handed strokes, the best of which was a flat crump down the ground that gave long-off no chance. Shapoor then had Vesawkar caught behind top-edging a pull and Nepal again became bogged down at the end. The final two overs of each of their three games have totaled 43 for 8.
Khakurel and Sagar Pun have shown themselves to be nimble runners without quite being able to force enough shots through the infield and once again the batteries on their opening partnership didn't last the Powerplay. Khakurel had survived chipping the ball between mid-off and extra cover, when Nabi inexplicably failed to dive for the chance, but Afghanistan's captain didn't have to exert himself in the following over, when Pun picked him out with an airy drive.
Khakurel crunched consecutive fours off Shapoor Zadran, the second a precise punch straight down the ground, and Gyanendra Malla briefly threatened to play the sort of explosive innings that can decide a game. His first ball was a rapier cover-drive for four and, with Afghanistan stacking the off-side field, he then went over Nabi's head, clearing the fingertips and beating long-off running to his left. A cross-batted pull over mid-on was followed by a delicious ping beyond the rope to the same part of the ground.
Malla's urgency got the better of him when he top-edged a switch hit to short third man. In Nepal's first two games, Khadka had shown poise and good technique to repair early damage but on this occasion, he played an uncharacteristically loose shot, trying to whip an off-stump delivery through midwicket. Mirwais Ashraf, who looks like a pro wrestler, showed some subtle variations to pick up 1 for 14 and he punched the air exuberantly at removing Nepal's talisman - though he was later outdone by Mukhiya's piston fist pump at getting two in two.
As Stanikzai drove Afghanistan close, laying into Kami's final over, a tightly packed corner of the stadium held themselves in suspense. Then came the cheers.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here