Ireland paid the price for ill-disciplined bowling and conceded the first T20 international to Afghanistan by six wickets in Greater Noida. Ireland did most things right at the beginning. Luck favoured them at the toss, and Stuart Thompson and William Porterfield gave them a strong start after electing to bat. But once Afghanistan's spinners began stifling them with regular wickets, things went downhill.
Ireland still managed a late recovery - thanks to Gary Wilson's 27-ball 41 not out - that took them to competitive 165 for 5. But the chase was entirely dominated by Afghanistan, Samiullah Shenwari and Mohammad Shahzad leading the way as the side romped to 171 for 4 with 12 balls to spare. Afghanistan secured their ninth successive win - the longest such streak in T20Is.
On a sluggish pitch where the ball repeatedly stopped on the batsmen, Ireland's bowlers needed to take pace off the ball and target the good-length region. They did the former, but struggled with their lines and lengths, generously offering width outside off and erring short. Given the lack of pace off the surface, the short balls gave batsmen enough time to get into position, and swat them away.
Afghanistan did not respond with the prettiest of strokes, but with Ireland's spinners failing to make them use their feet, their muscle proved enough to clear the boundaries and mow the target down. Their opening partnership, which lasted five overs, averaged two boundaries per over as Najeeb Tarikai and Shahzad used their brawn to cut, pull and drive. Ireland had their first breakthrough at the end of the fifth over when Wilson, the wicketkeeper, ran back to snaffle Tarikai's leading edge off an attempted slog.
Ireland needed to sustain that sharpness on the field. Shenwari, who got off the mark with a slapped boundary through extra cover, nearly fell to a short-ball trap from Craig Young. With fine leg inside the circle, Young banged one short. Shenwari pulled, but too fine to his liking as the ball went straight to the fielder, who let it burst through his fingers. Two overs later, O'Brien put down Shahzad in front of the long-on boundary after failing to pick up the batsman's loft in time. Shahzad was on 27 at that point.
Both batsmen made ample use of their reprieves. Shenwari, in particular, was in a punishing mood, springing on anything pitched up, and rocking back comfortably to the not-so-full ones. But the one area the partnership failed to make an impression was the running between the wickets.
Mix-ups were frequent, and one such moment of indecision ended the partnership. Shahzad, hesitating after responding to a call for a single, was caught short at the keeper's end. By then, he had gone past Umar Akmal to become the fifth-highest scorer in T20 internationals.
If Ireland sniffed an opening, it came to a swift end after O'Brien's nine-ball over, the 16th of the innings, which went for 27 runs. If his fuller balls were easy pickings for Shenwari and Asghar Stanikzai, O'Brien made it worse with three wides - one of which evaded the keeper and scooted to the fine leg boundary. With the equation down to seven off 24, it was Afghanistan's game to lose. Though they lost two late wickets, including that of Shenwari to a brilliant catch by George Dockrell at long-on, the damage had already been done. Shafiqullah, ultimately, completed the victory with a shovelled six over wide long-on.
In contrast, Afghanistan's bowlers, Rashid Khan, particularly, showed better awareness of how to bowl on the surface. As has become almost customary with them, Afghanistan began with spin, and Amir Hamza struck with his fourth ball when Paul Stirling misread the length and perished to the sweep and lost his leg stump. But like Ireland, Afghanistan bowled short and wide in the early exchanges as Thompson and Porterfield quickly wrested back the initiative.
Thompson played to merit and his ease in playing off either foot threw Mohammad Nabi off his length. The offspinner was tonked for three fours and a six in the sixth over as Ireland closed the Powerplay at 48 for 1.
But Afghanistan clawed their way back, starting with the re-introduction of Hamza. The left-arm spinner outsmarted Thompson with a flatter trajectory and had the batsman holing out to long-on. Porterfield was run out after an utterly chaotic chain of events - he survived one chance on the second run and was caught short on the third, and with O'Brien struggling against spin, the run rate dipped.
Rashid did his bit in choking the batsmen, using the googly smartly and getting the odd ball to turn. O'Brien, who had struggled to pick Rashid, decided the give the bowler the charge and swung wildly to one that spun away from him to be stumped.
Wilson and Lorcan Tucker then provided a fine exhibition of batting on a slow pitch, using scoops, sweeps, reverse-sweeps and cuts as Ireland punched 39 runs off the last three overs. But, as it turned out, the recovery was far from a match-winning one.