Afghanistan secured a historic 3-2 series win over Zimbabwe, the first in ODIs by an Associate against a Full Member, with a massive 73-run victory in the fifth ODI in Bulawayo. In a strong all-round performance, Afghanistan set the hosts a target of 246 with fifties from Noor Ali Zadran
and Mohammad Nabi
, and weathered a fighting hundred from Sean Williams
to bowl Zimbabwe out for 172 in 44.1 overs.
Even though Afghanistan's middle order did not capitalise on the strong start provided by their top four batsmen, their bowlers, led by Dawlat Zadran
, did not allow Zimbabwe to build partnerships at any point during their innings, striking as early as the second over to quickly derail Zimbabwe's chase.
Dawlat was once again penetrative with both the new and old ball, finishing with 4 for 22 from his eight overs, while left-arm spinner Amir Hamza strangled them further with his 3 for 41. Williams' maiden ODI hundred went in vain as he was the only fighting force from his team and was the last wicket to fall. The next best contribution was 16 from No. 9 Luke Jongwe and only three batsmen reached double-figures for Zimbabwe.
Dawlat, who shared the Man-of-the-Match award with Williams, struck with his very first delivery of the match to have opener Chamu Chibhabha caught at point. Craig Ervine did not last long, feathering an edge through to Mohammad Shahzad off Mirwais Ashraf, and when an advancing Richmond Mutumbami was bowled by Dawlat, Zimbabwe were a ragged mess at 15 for 3. Tino Mutombodzi's first shot in anger, off Hamza, produced only an edge that flew to Nabi at slip, and it quickly seemed as though Williams would be playing a lone hand.
He attempted to mount a counterattack, swiping Nabi for a pair of handsome sixes over long on, but when Sikandar Raza attempted to repeat the treatment from the other end, he was immediately stumped and Zimbabwe slipped to 51 for 5 in the 15th over. With fielders circling the bat menacingly and the spinner finding increasing purchase off the track, Elton Chigumbura was rendered virtually shotless, but Williams continued to take the attack to the bowlers, cracking two more sixes off Najibullah Zadran's part-time offspin and reaching a 62-ball fifty in the 24th over.
Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai used his young legspinner Rashid Khan cunningly, repeatedly switching the end he would bowl from as he searched for the wicket that would break the back of the chase. He got it when Rashid, bowling from the City End, produced the delivery of the day to get rid of Chigumbura, the ball drifting in through the air, drawing the bat with it, and then pitching and spinning the other way to clip off stump. Zimbabwe were 103 for 6 then, in the 26th over and Afghanistan were buzzing with anticipation.
They were kept waiting by Tendai Chisoro, who dug in at one end, but with the required rate climbing swiftly, the pressure eventually told and Chisoro lifted Hamza straight to Najibullah at long on. It seemed that Williams and the rest of the side were batting on different pitches as he cruised through the 90s while the rest of the side had struggled, and he had moved to 99 when Jongwe's entertaining cameo, which included a reverse sweep off a quick delivery from Dawlat, was ended when the bowler pegged back his off stump with a yorker.
Zimbabwe moved to 167 for 8 with the single that took Williams to his century in the 43rd over, but with Dawlat now reversing the old ball at will, it was clear that Zimbabwe's tail could not last long. Dawlat knocked back both the off and middle stumps with a bulls-eye yorker to get rid of Wellington Masakadza, and the No.11 Tinashe Panyagara was only just able to survive the final two deliveries of that over, both of which swung in to the blockhole.
With virtually nothing left to play for, Williams charged down at Rashid in the next over and swung past the ball to be stumped for 102, his dismissal sparking feverish celebrations. Shahzad began ripping out the stumps at the striker's end, throwing one each to the fielders on either side of him and keeping one for himself as a memento of a historic victory.
Afghanistan got there easily in the end, but they had been made to work much harder with the bat when a middle-order collapse threatened to undo the good work of their top three, the visitors slipping from 160 for 2 to 202 for 7.
Shahzad had roared out of the blocks with a flurry of boundaries in the morning, and Afghanistan were racing along at better than seven an over before he pulled a long hop from Masakadza out to the deep midwicket fielder. But Nabi and Noor Ali kept Afghanistan steady with a 97-run stand for the second wicket, the highest of the match, and Noor Ali registered his third half-century of the series. His patient knock was ended when he misread the length of a quicker one from Raza to be bowled for 54, and at that stage Afghanistan were still a relatively healthy 132 for 2 in the 28th over.
Nabi brought up his own half-century and had taken his series tally to 223 runs before he too was dismissed by Raza, reverse-sweeping into the hands of backward point. Zimbabwe clawed their way back into the ascendancy with some disciplined bowling and pressure-building fielding, and picked up the wickets of Samiullah Shenwari, Najibullah, Shafiqullah and Rashid for single figures.
But Afghanistan are not usually the sort of team to subside meekly - or at least not without playing their shots as they go - and the No.9 Ashraf struck two enormous sixes as he and Stanikzai put on 27 in under three overs. Afghanistan swung merrily through the final few overs to set what was thought to be a decent total. After their inspired performance in the field, it was more than enough to secure a victory that sparked emotional celebrations both by the players on the field, and by their many fans back home.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town