The burden of being Rashid Khan, and Sean Williams' rising stocks
Five talking points from the Test series between Afghanistan and Zimbabwe
The two Tests between Afghanistan and Zimbabwe were as different as they could be. Both in Abu Dhabi, the first favoured bowlers and finished in under two days, while batsmen had a grand time in the second, which went into the final hour of the final day. The varied scenarios that the series threw up also provided some interesting insights into where the two teams stand.
Afghanistan's over-reliance on Rashid Khan
Afghanistan have three players who rub shoulders with the world's elite on a regular basis, but of them, Mohammad Nabi (retired) and Mujeeb Ur Rahman (more of a white-ball specialist) are not Test players like Rashid Khan is. Khan was sorely missed in the first Test, which he sat out nursing a finger injury. Zimbabwe beat Afghanistan within two days.
In the second, Khan played, and ended up doing the work of two bowlers. The other bowlers picked up nine wickets to his 11, but they never really troubled the Zimbabwe batsmen in any major way. As a result, and because Afghanistan added a batsman and cut a bowler after the first Test, Khan ended up bowling 99.2 of the 240.2 overs Zimbabwe faced at a stretch - in their first innings and then after being asked to follow on. A match haul of 11 wickets is an excellent return - especially in a win - but it came after bowling the most overs in a Test this century; that's not flattering for the bowling unit as a whole. And it shows the captain trusts just one bowler to do the job, even at the risk of burning him out.
Which brings us to…
… Asghar Afghan's captaincy choices
The 164 in the second Test aside, there wasn't much Asghar Afghan (and the team management) did that stood out. In a positive way.
The choice of just the one seamer, Yamin Ahmadzai, on a green-ish deck in the first Test was a miscalculation. Then debutant batsmen Abdul Malik and Munir Ahmed were dropped for the second match despite every Afghanistan batsman with the exception of Ibrahim Zadran failing in the first Test - it couldn't have helped the confidence of the young players (or Abdul Wasi, who was also left out after a poor debut).
Then, to compensate for the poor batting performance in the first game, Afghanistan chose to play an extra batsman on a batting-friendly deck in the second Test, leaving only three specialist bowlers in the XI. Then came the follow-on, which meant the already thin bowling attack had to grind it out for over 260 overs at a stretch, which could well have cost them the win.
Not to forget Afghan's own batting position in the two Tests. During the struggle in the first Test, Afghan came out to bat at No. 7 both times. On the flat surface in the second game, he was up at No. 5 with the team coasting at 121 for 3 in the first innings, and scored a big hundred. Shouldn't the captain, the senior pro in the line-up, take more responsibility when the going is tough?
The rise in Sean Williams' stocks
Sean Williams, on the other hand, was in the thick of things. With Brendan Taylor, Craig Ervine, Kyle Jarvis, Tendai Chatara and PJ Moor unavailable for this reason or that, Williams had to step up, and he did so with great success. His two centuries in three innings came in trying conditions or situations.
In the first Test, the ball was zipping around after hitting the deck. In the first two innings of that game, no batsman from either side scored a fifty, but Williams used his unconventional batting technique to score 105 in 174 balls in a team total of 250.
In the second Test, with Zimbabwe looking to avoid an innings defeat and set Afghanistan some sort of target, Williams hit an unbeaten 151 in 305 deliveries, and stitched a 187-run eighth-wicket partnership with Donald Tiripano. Williams eventually ran out of partners but did as much as he could have to try and bat his side to a series win. Although that didn't happen, he took home the Player of the Series award for his dogged batting.
Some people thrive when given more responsibility. Williams has scores of 18, 39, 107, 53*, 105, 8 and 151* as Test captain.
Another two-day Test, but…
The curator had left grass at both ends in the first Test, and Zimbabwe's pace-bowling trio of Blessing Muzarabani, Victor Nyauchi and Tiripano feasted on it. They shared 16 of the 20 Afghanistan wickets, dismissing the opposition for 131 and 135.
Muzarabani's height was a big factor, and his bounce, whether extra or less-than-usual off the deck, troubled Afghanistan's batsmen frequently. Nyauchi's ability to get the ball to swing into the right-handers tested their defensive techniques too, while Tiripano earned rewards for sticking to a stump-to-stump line. It was a clear case of Afghanistan's batsmen being unable to navigate the spicy pitch.
The game ended in two days, and naturally, the surface had a role to play in it, but there was very little noise surrounding the result, in contrast to the debate that surrounded the pitch for the third Test between India and England in Ahmedabad, where spinners had called the shots in another two-day finish.
In this case, like that one, Afghanistan might have got their XI wrong, fielding just one seamer. In Ahmedabad, England included just one specialist spinner, and saw part-timer Joe Root return a five-wicket haul.
Good signs for the future
Zadran, the tall 19-year-old opener, made 208 runs in four innings. With a solid defensive technique and the skills to hold his own against the short ball, Zadran made 76 on that difficult first-Test track. He followed that up with 72 in the second Test, setting up a base that Hashmatullah Shahidi and Afghan built on to post Afghanistan's highest Test score of 545 for 4 declared. After eight Test innings, Zadran's average is a healthy 44.50.
Amir Hamza, the left-arm orthodox spinner, was consistent with the areas he targeted. He took ten wickets in the series, including a personal best of 6 for 75 in the first Test. He troubled Zimbabwe's right-handers across both matches and ensured runs did not leak from his end. In a well-rounded bowling line-up where no bowler is overworked, Hamza has the potential to be a Test regular for Afghanistan.
Muzarabani, the tall fast bowler, also stood out as easily the most penetrative quick on both sides, especially if the pitch has a little something for him. His high release generates extra bounce and he angles the ball in sharply because of how wide he goes on the crease. His four-wicket haul in the first innings of the first Test went a big way in setting up Zimbabwe's win, and if he can become more useful on less-responsive pitches, Zimbabwe might just have a proper fast bowler in their ranks.
Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo