A lesson in pragmatism for passionate Afghanistan

Afghanistan's rapid climb up cricket's world order created plenty of excitement and expectations around the team. The World Cup gave them a chance to gauge their strengths and they strengthened their case for more exposure

Abhishek Purohit
Abhishek Purohit
The win against Scotland, crafted almost single-handedly by Samiullah Shenwari was made more memorable by Afghanistan's exuberant celebrations  •  ICC

The win against Scotland, crafted almost single-handedly by Samiullah Shenwari was made more memorable by Afghanistan's exuberant celebrations  •  ICC

How their tournament panned out
Afghanistan ended their first World Cup with a one-wicket win over Scotland and five losses. Four of those defeats were pretty comprehensive. Afghanistan's rapid climb up the world order has created plenty of excitement around them, and also brought with it some expectation. From that perspective, there is reason to feel let down with their displays in the tournament, particularly with the batting, for the side is definitely capable of better performances. However, it must also not be forgotten that coming into the World Cup, Afghanistan had played all of ten ODIs against Full Member opponents, and five of those games had come against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. They were expected to beat Scotland, which they did, but anything else would have had to be a bonus. They did give Sri Lanka a proper scare, and if anything, that made a case for greater exposure against the bigger sides.
The high point
Undoubtedly the match against Sri Lanka in Dunedin. Afghanistan posted their highest score of the tournament - 232 - and tellingly, it came without a standout contribution from any of the batsmen. Their three fast bowlers took an early wicket each to reduce Sri Lanka to 18 for 3. Mirwais Ashraf kept the scoring down from one end, and Hamid Hassan took out the centurion Mahela Jayawardene. At one stage, Sri Lanka needed 45 from six overs with four wickets remaining. Then Thisara Perera cracked an unbeaten 47 off 26 but Afghanistan's fight had Jayawardene remarking that there was "not a big gap between the top countries and these guys."
And the low
The start of their chase in the opening match against Bangladesh, when they slipped to 3 for 3. Afghanistan had beaten their opponents the only time they had faced them in an ODI before, in the Asia Cup last March. If they were to win a second game, this seemed to be the likeliest. But their top order just froze after Bangladesh posted 267. Mashrafe Mortaza and Rubel Hossain were hustling and accurate, but by no means unplayable or even express. But their batsmen's feet simply refused to move, and they were easy targets. It was catch-up for the rest of the batsmen after that.
Top of the class
Samiullah Shenwari gave Afghanistan their first and only World Cup win. With single-digit scores littered above and below him on the scorecard, he all but took Afghanistan home in their chase of 211 with his 96. Afghanistan were 97 for 7 and 132 for 8 but Shenwari did not give up. He is a powerful hitter but buckled down to tackle the situation at hand. Shenwari was the lone light in a badly misfiring batting unit, with 254 runs in the tournament at an average of 42.33, more than twice the number of runs the next-best Afghanistan batsman managed.
What we learnt about Afghanistan
We had only caught a glimpse of Afghanistan's fast bowlers in the past, but after a month at the World Cup, we know they have a seriously good and even versatile attack in Hamid Hassan, Dawlat Zadran, Shapoor Zadran. Better sides won't mind having such fast bowlers. No less a batsman than David Warner was impressed by the zip they generated at the WACA. The Australia match was the only game where Afghanistan leaked a flood of runs, but it was more a case of an inexperienced side running into a fearsome line-up than poor bowling. The number of yorkers Afghanistan got in at the death that afternoon in Perth was commendable. The slow bowlers were quite steady, but Afghanistan missed the control the injured medium-pacer Ashraf brings in the middle overs. That they still managed to compete as a bowling unit over 50 overs shows their tenacity.
What they learnt from the World Cup
However well you bowl, it will be futile if your batting falls apart almost every time. Afghanistan's up-and-down batting was their weak link coming into the World Cup, and it failed them massively. They averaged 17.14 per wicket with the bat in the tournament, the worst among all teams (as on March 13). The one time they gave their bowlers some runs, the attack tested the might of the Sri Lankans. Afghanistan's batting strike-rate of 60 was also the poorest in the tournament, also indicating that the line-up was always under pressure as wickets fell regularly. In stark contrast to their bowlers, their batsmen were just not able to show that they could build a challenging score over 50 overs. In their defence, it is rather difficult for batsmen to adjust to changed conditions, especially a group that has not had much experience in them, again pointing to the need for more exposure.

Abhishek Purohit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo