Afghanistan 189 for 5 (Gurbaz 53, Najibullah 42, Little 2-29) beat Ireland 167 for 9 (Dockrell 58*, Naveen 3-38, Mujeeb 2-28) by 22 runs
A superb batting display from Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Najibullah Zadran, followed by a complete performance from the bowling unit took Afghanistan to a win in the third T20I against Ireland in Belfast, as they kept the five-match series alive.
Afghanistan bounced back from two consecutive defeats as Gurbaz and Najibullah set up a total of 189 for 5. Ireland were reduced to 85 for 7 in the chase, following which George Dockrell and debutant Fionn Hand took them close with a 74-run stand. But the hosts eventually fell short by 22 runs.
Gurbaz steps up after sedate start
A bit of nip in the air made Gurbaz and Hazratullah Zazai - who returned to the side after an illness - start off rather watchfully against the Ireland quicks. Ireland had also gone for an extra seamer in their attack, handing a debut to Graham Hume in place of offspinner Andy McBrine. Afghanistan finished the powerplay with 41 for no loss as the duo kept rotating the strike, following which Gurbaz took control of the scoring.
After hitting three consecutive boundaries off Curtis Campher in the ninth over, he took Hand for two fours and a six to move to 49 off 31 balls. An overthrow on the last ball of the over gave Gurbaz his fourth T20I fifty, which also took Afghanistan's score to 83 for no loss at the end of 10 overs. Josh Little, who produced a Player-of-the-Match performance in the second T20I, finally got the breakthrough with Gurbaz's wicket.
Zazai was still going at a sedate strike rate but he broke the pressure with a massive six over long-on off legspinner Gareth Delany in the 13th over. But just when he had started showing intent to score, he became Hand's maiden international wicket in the very next over, as he played a slower delivery too soon and edged the ball to a diving Paul Stirling at short third. Zazai took 40 balls in his score of 39.
The Zadrans punish the hosts
The Zadrans - Ibrahim and Najibullah - made sure they kept the momentum going despite the two quick wickets. The Ireland quicks had been bowling harder lengths on the day, and Ibrahim, in particular, used that to his advantage - the short-of-length delivery around off from Hand was pulled in front of square for a boundary while a short-ish one from Hume was hoicked through square leg for a six. Little stuck to the shorter lengths even as Ibrahim hit him for two consecutive fours in the 18th over.
But the ploy finally worked on the fourth delivery when he ended up ramping one straight into the wicketkeeper's hands. With captain Mohammad Nabi arriving at the crease, Afghanistan were all set for a big finish. But it was Najibullah who made the statement. After plundering two sixes off Hume to finish off the 19th over, he cracked a couple of more in the final over to take Afghanistan's total to 189. An attempt to flick a full toss fine brought an end to his stay at the crease on the last ball, but by then Afghanistan already had a match-winning total on the board.
Where's the intent?
Ireland came into this game on the back of two wins but that did not show in their batting. Fazalhaq Farooqi plucked out the experienced opening pair of Stirling and Balbirnie cheaply, following which Naveen-ul-Haq dented them further by removing Harry Tector and Curtis Campher. At the end of the powerplay, they were 36 for 4, going at a run-rate of six when they actually needed to go at 11 per over.
While Lorcan Tucker displayed some aggression, smashing a slower ball from Farooqi over midwicket and then taking on spinners Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rashid Khan for boundaries, most of the runs for Ireland otherwise came from ones and twos. There was another slide that followed: Mujeeb removed Tucker and Mark Adair, while Nabi struck between these two dismissals to send Gareth Delany back. Afghanistan had pretty much stamped their authority by then, with Ireland reeling at 85 for 7. Enter Dockrell and Hand.
Dockrell, Hand take Ireland close
It could've been a legendary chase. But Ireland could come only close - which has been their story for most of the summer. The duo didn't seem to give up. After Hand punished Nabi for three fours in the 14th over, Dockrell followed with two fours and a six off Rashid in the 15th. They not only targeted the spinners but also went after the fast bowlers - even Naveen, who was the best bowler of the day.
After Dockrell smashed Naveen's slower short ball mid-off in the 17th over, Hand smoked a short ball over extra cover to finish off the over to bring the equation down to 51 off 18 balls. Dockrell continued the carnage, hitting two fours off Rashid in the next over as he brought up a 28-ball fifty. Rashid went wicketless for the third game in a row - before this series, he had never gone wicketless in two successive T20Is.
Hand hit another six in the next over before Naveen finally made him his third victim of the evening. With 28 needing off the last over and despite Dockrell staying till the end, the equation proved too much for Ireland. Azmatullah Omarzai ended up giving away just five runs off the over as Afghanistan clawed their way back into the series.