Afghanistan has vindicated its raging favouritism for the ACC Trophy Elite title with an emphatic 95-run win over Nepal in the final in Kuwait City on Friday.
A mainly pro-Afghanistan crowd of about 5,000 cheered, banged drums and looked on as the two most passionately supported non-Test countries in Asia contested a final where the ball was dominant over the bat.
All-rounder Binod Das in for Mahaboob Alam was the only change for Nepal, while Afghanistan fielded the same team which beat Hong Kong in the semi-final.
After being sent in on a good batting track which suggested 250 was a par score, Afghanistan started slowly against tight Nepal bowling and fielding. Afghanistan were in early trouble when Noor Ali attempted a suicidal single to Gyanendra Malla who scored with a direct hit. Noor Ali run out for 5 - Afghanistan 1 for 14 after 5.4 overs. Two balls later Afghanistan were 2 for 14 when Mohammad Shahzad was caught behind to a length ball from Das. A period of consolidation followed as Karim Sadiq and captain Nowroz Mangal put on 25 runs in six overs before Nowroz was out. A shot off his legs was mistimed and Anil Mandal took a diving catch at leg - Afghanistan 3-39 and Nepal clearly on top.
Two partnerships then swung the game slightly back to Afghanistan. Karim Sadiq had been there since the start and combined with Mirwais Ashraf (59) for the fourth wicket before Ashraf was caught going for his third six. Afghanistan were 4 for 98 after 25 overs with the game evenly poised. A partnership of 97 in 103 balls between Raees Ahmadzai and Mohammad Nabi at least put Afghanistan in a position where they could look at providing their much vaunted bowlers with something to defend. Afghanistan's 224 all-out was slightly less than expected but a decent reward for a good Nepalese effort in the field. Binod Das's return of 3 for 35 off eight overs was an accurate reflection of good bowling. At this stage, the minority Nepalese contingent in the crowd had reason to feel confident.
Nepal started their innings comfortably enough reaching 16 after three overs. Paceman Mirwais Ashraf who had bowled several wides, had Mahesh Chhettri caught behind for 4 from 15 balls. Two overs later Anil Mandil (5 from 11 balls) was caught at slip to a delivery from Mirwais Ashraf - Nepal 18 for 2 after 5.5 overs and in need of a big partnership. The experienced Shakti Gauchan and Malla tried to consolidate when Gauchan (6 from 23) was induced into giving Nabi at slip a catch off Shahpour Zadran. Nepal were now 28 for 3 and the asking rate was increasing. Skipper Paras Khadka joined Malla and the pair steadily took the score 49 for 3. Malla in particular was batting well in what was obviously a pivotal partnership. Nabi, who has made a habit of playing the game-breaker for Afghanistan, had Khadka caught on his crease for a patient 11 from 30 balls. Sharad Vesawkar and Malla put on 25 off 24 balls when disaster struck. Attempting a quick single, Afghan 'keeper Mohammad Shahzad's throw to to the bowler beat Malla and Nepal were 74 for 5 from 23.3 overs. Although Vesawkar rallied with Das and Sanjam Regmi to add 40 late runs, it was inevitable the mainly Afghan crowd of around 5000 would be celebrating their first ACC Trophy Elite title. Nepal was all-out for 140 from 40 overs. Raees Ahmadzai won the Man-of-the-Match award for his crucial 52 from 64 balls as Afghanistan won by 96 runs.
At the Unity ground next door, Hong Kong held off a determined Malaysia to win the third/fourth place play-off match.
Batting first after winning the toss fifties for Roy Lamsam, Ilyas Gul and Nizakat Khan helped Hong Kong recover from 4 for 2 to post 251 from the 50 overs. It was a tumultuous start for Hong Kong, losing Nasir Hameed and Hussain Butt within the first five overs. A 110-run third wicket partnership steadied the ship with Lamsam patiently working his way to 50 off 114 balls. He eventually fell to Hassan Ghulam but the relief was short lives for Malaysia as Khan came in and smashed an unbeaten 72 from 46 balls. Gul was run out for 72 but some lusty hitting from Najeeb Amar carried the total past 250.
Malaysia had done well to restrict Hong Kong to a manageable score and they looked in total control when the openers put on 77 for the first wicket. Faris Almas stroked the ball nicely on his way to 42 but his wicket, off the bowling of Amar, ushered a mini-collapse as Malaysia slipped to 103 for 3. Rakesh Madhavan was still going sublimely and found useful support from Suresh Navaratnam (22) and Shafiq Sharif (24) on his way to 129 off 137 balls, but it wasn’t quite enough as they finished seven runs short.
Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo