Australia 272 for 8 (Clarke 75, Wade 75) beat Afghanistan 206 (Stanikzai 66, Starc 4-47) by 66 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball report
It was a historic night for Afghanistan, being just their second taste of elite one-day international cricket, but any hopes of a fairy-tale victory were dashed by the reality as they were eventually outgunned by an Australia side featuring some of the best cricketers in the world.
But the key word is eventually, as Afghanistan proved a more than worthy opponent capable of exposing flaws in this Australia side during a spirited run chase.
Australia were in control thanks to the contrasting styles of Matthew Wade and Michael Clarke, who each posted 75, and the indefatigable Michael Hussey (49), as they set an impressive total of 273 on a sluggish surface in oppressive conditions, before the pace and swing of Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson ripped through the Afghanistan top order to leave them reeling at 49 for 4.
But this team that has ascended from rubble, through lowly ICC division five cricket to the World Twenty20, showed its incredible fighting spirit, exemplified by Asghar Stanikzai and Mohammad Nabi.
The pair combined for 86 to send shudders through the Australia camp, mainly because of the momentum gathered along the way. Nabi, having earlier claimed two wickets with his crafty offspin, took a shining to Xavier Doherty and Glenn Maxwell, clubbing three sixes off the two Australia tweakers. Stanikzai chimed in with a slog-sweep of his own and although they did not turn the strike over as a professional side would the scoreboard moved at a very healthy rate.
It forced Clarke into a rethink, having to turn back to Starc. His pace again unsettled the Afghanistan pair and saw Stanikzai offer a sharp chance to mid-on where George Bailey could not hang on. From there Nabi and Stanikzai added 40 in just 36 balls before Mitchell Johnson bowled Nabi through the gate from around the wicket. Nonetheless the partnership left Australia ragged and rattled. Stanikzai progressed to a well deserved half-century as he bravely battled cramp and fatigue.
Clarke again called on Starc in the batting Powerplay. The left-arm quick conceded three boundaries to Stanikzai before the captain took a terrific catch at midwicket to end one of the best innings by an Afghan in ODI cricket and effectively end the match. Starc finished with four wickets and was comfortably the pick of the Australia bowlers.
Earlier, after one look at a pitch that resembled a strip of shiny concrete in the middle of the Sharjah Association Ground, Clarke did not hesitate in electing to bat first. His assertion that the wicket looked good for batting, if a little slow, proved prophetic as both Australia openers wrestled with their timing early. Wade, re-acquainting himself with opening in the absence of Shane Watson, found timing particularly hard to come by against the accurate and consistent new-ball pairing of Shapoor Zadran and Dawlat Zadran.
David Warner found the going a little easier when he was offered some width from Shapoor. He also took the chance to club the left-armer down the ground. But Shapoor was rewarded for his shorter length when Warner edged an attempted cut to a ball a fraction close, to hand Afghanistan their first wicket inside seven overs.
Enter the captain at first drop, a familiar sight for Australia fans in years past, but a rare venture for Clarke. It is only the fifth time he has batted at No. 3 since he succeeded Ricky Ponting as the full-time captain.
Clarke took his time to assess the surface but his fluency and class were quickly unveiled. An effortless straight-drive for four was a cut-above anything Warner and Wade had played on a surface lacking pace and an outfield lacking speed. Although he only struck three fours and two sixes in his 75, Clarke's footwork and placement were a feature throughout as he handled the spinners comfortably.
Wade was anything but comfortable throughout his 108-ball stay. The suffocating heat of the UAE, with temperatures hovering above 34 degrees Celsius well after sunset, looked to be getting the better of Wade. But he stuck to his task admirably to register his highest ODI score and provide the perfect foil to Clarke as they combined for a 131-run stand.
They were undone by Afghanistan's most experienced spinners in Samiullah Shenwari and Nabi. Shenwari's wrist spin was particularly good, save for two rank full tosses that were both dispatched by Clarke. He should have claimed both wickets, having had Wade dropped by his captain Nawroz Mangal at midwicket on 32. Wade eventually fell to a sharp return catch by the offspinner Nabi, before Shenwari became only the sixth man in ODIs to spin one past the advancing blade of Clarke to have the Australia captain stumped.
Australia's debutant, Victoria allrounder Glenn Maxwell, was promoted to No. 4 during the batting Powerplay without success. He holed out to long-on for just 2 before the Hussey brothers did what the Hussey brothers do to tick the total beyond 200. But a brilliant piece of fielding from Gulbodin Naib to run out David hindered Australia's progression momentarily, before Michael showed how valuable he still is to this outfit with a finishing flurry that only he could have compiled.
Hussey and Bailey combined for 53 in five overs. The purity of their striking was made even more impressive by the fact that the wicket was getting progressively slower. It was the third time in four innings that this duo have posted 50 or more together.
It was a night of firsts all-round. Not only was it the first meeting between these two nations, it was also the first time Australia were involved in a match in which both 50-over innings were completed under moonlight. The Afghanistan players also took prayer breaks at both drinks junctures as well as the innings break, something also foreign to this Australia side.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based in Perth