If you wanted an idea of how much the nature of a pitch influences the cricket played on it, contrast Afghanistan's last two matches. Against England - not even the best players of spin - their star legspinner Rashid Khan was given a tutorial on what life is like for the less gifted on most days. The spin trio of Rashid, Mujeeb ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi collectively conceded a seemingly confidence shattering 224 in 28 overs in that match.
Fast forward to Southampton and it must have felt like waking up to a beautiful morning from a terrible nightmare. On the slower, drier pitch there, not entirely different from the Hyderabad surface they play on in the IPL, they were a beast that couldn't be tamed by one of the strongest batting line-ups in the world. For all the external factors that a disappointing campaign can be attributed to, it is really out in the middle, on unfavourable surfaces that their fate has most often been sealed. But having come within touching distance of tasting victory against India, Afghanistan will be thrilled to remain in Southampton, hoping to cause what would be on current form, an upset against Bangladesh.
Ironically, Bangladesh themselves were a conditions-dependent team for the longest time, but despite their lack of experience in the UK, they have shown to have acquired the kind of adaptability you need to not just compete in multi-team tournaments played on varied surfaces but also be legitimate contenders. A washout against Sri Lanka, a team they would have fancied their chances against, has left them in a position where even winning all three remaining games may not be enough to make the top four, but it is the minimum requirement. Each match from here is a virtual knockout, the kind of pressure situation that has made former champions like Pakistan (1992) and Australia (1999). It's the kind of situation which could transform Bangladesh from a competitive unit to one that is feared by oppositions.
Bangladesh LWLLW (completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Bangladesh's problem has been taking wickets. They have averaged 49 with the ball, the most for any team in the World Cup so far. A major reason for that has been the impenetrability of offspinner Mehidy Hasan, particularly in the first 30 overs. In that period of the match, when the narrative takes shape, he averages 165, with one wicket in 32 overs. It must be noted that none of these - with the exception of The Oval against New Zealand which was slow - matches could said to have been played on spin-friendly surfaces, like the one he's likely to have in Southampton. However, he was struck on the side of the head by a ball during a net session on the eve of the match, and though he is understood to be out of danger, his participation in the Afghanistan clash is in doubt.
Rashid Khan came back strongly after the hammering at Old Trafford to restrict India's scoring in the middle in Southampton, before picking MS Dhoni, his only wicket, in the death. However, he has been afflicted with a similar malady as Mehidy, having struggled in his first spell throughout the World Cup. In the 20 overs that have constituted his first spell across five matches, he has gone at over six runs per over, without taking a single wicket. Against proficient players of spin, he will be tested again but on a helpful surface, Afghanistan will want more from their premier spinner.
A blow to the side of the head has put Mehidy Hasan's participation in doubt. That would be a big blow to Bangladesh on a spin-friendly surface. Mohammad Saifuddin, Bangladesh's highest wicket-taker in the tournament, sat out the last match against Australia due to a back injury he hasn't fully recovered from. Rubel Hossain, who replaced him, went for 83 in nine wicket-less overs. Bangladesh may be tempted to persist with him for his pace, particularly against Afghanistan, but also because Abu Jayed, the other option, largely relies on moving the new ball, something that hasn't been on offer in Southampton. Mosaddek Hossain, however, could be back after sufficiently recovering from a left shoulder injury. He might replace Sabbir Rahman or Mehidy, depending on the latter's availability.
Bangladesh (Probable XI): Tamim Iqbal, Soumya Sarkar, Shakib Al Hasan, Mushfiqur Rahim (wk), Liton Das, Mahmudullah, Sabbir Rahman, Mehidy Hasan Miraz/Mosaddek Hossain, Mashrafe Mortaza (capt), Rubel Hossain, Mustafizur Rahman
Afghanistan may persist with the same side after it gave India a run for their money.
Afghanistan (Probable XI): Hazratullah Zazai, Gulbadin Naib*, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Asghar Afghan, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran, Ikram Alikhil (wk), Rashid Khan, Aftab Alam, Mujeeb Ur Rahman
Pitch and conditions
Spin has played a significant role in Southampton, although some of the quicks have used the two-paced nature of the pitch to their advantage as well. While chasing is the preferred option in ODIs, this is a venue where runs on the board can be golden. However, the chance of rain could throw all of that out of the window.
- Of all teams, Afghanistan have been the most vulnerable against short-of-a-length or short deliveries. They have lost 21 wickets to those lengths, averaging a shade over 15. Someone like Rubel Hossain could exploit that weakness.
- Mohammad Nabi, who took Afghanistan to the brink of a massive upset against India, has been excellent against spin but not so much against pace. Four of his five dismissals in the World Cup have come against pace and his strike also dips from 100 against spin to 62 against pace. It's a no brainer for Bangladesh to attack him with pace.
Stats and trivia
- Gulbadin Naib needs 43 runs for 1000 runs in ODIs
- Mashrafe Mortaza needs 2 wickets for 100 wickets as a captain in ODIs.
- Shakib Al Hasan needs 35 runs for 1000 runs in World Cups
"Shakib al Hasan is one of the best Bangladesh players, playing alongside Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan in the IPL. He might be difficult to stop if tomorrow is his day, but equally, if it is our day, it will be very difficult for anyone, not only Shakib."
- Afghanistan captain Gulbadin Naib is unperturbed by Shakib's threat
"We all know what's in front of us. If you break it down, we only need to win five games to win the World Cup. It is one way of looking at it, if you treat it all as knockout games. It is not going to be easy, and the first step is Afghanistan. We are not looking further than them."
- Bangladesh coach Steve Rhodes on what's ahead of them in the tournament.