Cricket is a confidence game. Afghanistan, searching for a spark in the first Test in which they were ambushed in less than two days, found it a week later in the second Test. And they've carried that forward into their favourite format, the T20s, breaking little sweat in seeing off Zimbabwe in the series opener.
Rashid Khan, a global T20 superstar, one of the architects of their series-levelling second Test win, singlehandedly works magic for them. His presence automatically lifts a young side, many of whom are slowly spreading their wings in leagues like the BBL, CPL and the Abu Dhabi T10. Most times, his four overs are like an insurance policy when they defend or are under sustained aggression from opponents.
While he lived up to his reputation on Wednesday too, the star was opener Rahmanullah Gurbaz, who displayed a ferocity to his batting to make a 45-ball 87 at the top of the order. Asghar Afghan, chipping in with just his fourth T20I fifty in his 64th innings, may have steered away from some of the "is he good enough" debates. Only a week ago, he also became the country's second Test centurion. And it all bodes well for Afghanistan: the batting not being dependent on just one or two people alone is something they'd want to cultivate as they build up to the T20 World Cup in India in October.
Zimbabwe have no immediate requirements of that kind, because they won't be playing in that showpiece event after failing to qualify for administrative reasons - their board was suspended at the time of the qualifier. But there's plenty of pride at stake and an opportunity to look a year into the future, when there's another T20 World Cup in Australia in 2022.
For a while now, Zimbabwe's schedule hasn't been defined. So having an intense stretch of games such as this in a span of four weeks by itself is a positive sign. Now the next step is for them to overcome the batting dependency on Sean Williams and Sikandar Raza, if they're to put up tall totals or chase down scores like the 199 were faced with in the first T20I. There's also a streak to break. They've lost each of their last five T20Is, including nine of the last 10 against Afghanistan.
Afghanistan: WLWWW (completed T20Is, most recent first)
Zimbabwe: : LLLLL
Zimbabwe: : LLLLL
In the spotlight
Twenty-two-year old Karim Janat, brother of Afghan, is developing into an allrounder. He first showed shades of his brilliance against West Indies in November 2019, after his selection had become somewhat of a talking point because at that stage, he had averaged 31 with the bat, while his bowling numbers weren't that impressive either. Then, he shredded a power-packed West Indies by first making a freewheeling 18-ball 26 and then taking 5 for 11, Afghanistan's second-best T20I figures, in a win. Over the past year, while his bowling has come on superbly, he's fallen behind slightly with the bat. For an opener, he's yet to hit a T20I half-century. Can he on Friday?
A prodigious batting talent at 16, Wesley Madhevere has found the transition to international cricket tough. A member of two Under-19 World Cup squads and a heavy scorer for Eagles in domestic cricket, Madhevere's struggled for runs on tour. He's made two ducks in his first two Test innings and, on Wednesday, managed just 2 before being foxed by Rashid trying to slog. It speaks of the side's confidence, perhaps, that he's also batting at a lowly No. 7 currently. He didn't bowl either in the opening game, so there is much to prove.
Pitch and conditions
It's likely to be a good surface in Abu Dhabi, but one of the square boundaries will be considerably shorter. The heat at this time of the year isn't yet intense by UAE standards, but it'll still test the fitness and endurance of the players nonetheless.
The status of Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Gulbadin Naib is as yet unclear after the two were among a group of five players whose UAE visas were delayed.
Afghanistan (probable): 1 Rahmanullah Gurbaz, 2 Usman Ghani/Gulbadin Naib, 3 Karim Janat, 4 Asghar Afghan (capt), 5 Mohammad Nabi, 6 Najibullah Zadran, 7 Afsar Zazai (wk), 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Naveen Ul Haq, 10 Amir Hamza, 11 Fareed Ahmad/Mujeeb Ur Rahman
Zimbabwe (probable): 1 Tarisai Musakanda, 2 Tinashe Kamunhukamwe, 3 Sean Williams (capt), 4 Sikandar Raza, 5 Ryan Burl, 6 Richmond Mutumbami (wk), 7 Wesley Madhevere, 8 Donald Tiripano, 9 Brandon Mavuta, 10 Blessing Muzarabani, 11 Richard Ngarava
Stats and trivia
- Mohammad Nabi, now just a white-ball player, hasn't picked up a wicket in his last 12 T20I bowling innings. This is the longest streak without a wicket for any player who's bowled regularly in this format.
- Rashid Khan will make his 50th T20I appearance on Friday.
- Rashid is currently the joint-fourth-highest wicket-taker in men's T20Is, with Shakib Al Hasan. He needs two more wickets to go past Tim Southee (93 wickets). Lasith Malinga (107) and Shahid Afridi (98) occupy the top two spots
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo