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Clinical, risk-assessed, productive - Afghanistan's batting evolution unlocks new highs

Afghanistan's batting lineup is no longer viewed as a potentially explosive but naïve unit; they look much more in control

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Ibrahim Zadran's ramp against Australia would have been remembered as one of the shots of the World Cup on any other night  •  ICC/Getty Images

Ibrahim Zadran's ramp against Australia would have been remembered as one of the shots of the World Cup on any other night  •  ICC/Getty Images

Do you still remember that shot? The shot before the shots that you're not going to ever forget. The shot before Glenn Maxwell pulled off shots that even Glenn Maxwell might think were a little bit too much.
That shot came off the bat of Ibrahim Zadran earlier in the game and on any other night, it would have been recognised and remembered as one of the shots of the tournament. A ramped dab - or was it a dabbed ramp? - dead straight over the wicketkeeper, off Pat Cummins, to the boundary on the bounce: written out like this, it sounds a little prosaic.
In reality, it was anything but. The genius, like Hemingway's in his sparse prose or in understated elegance of Daniel Craig's James Bond, was in its minimalism. Ramps are usually fairly ostentatious shots, as you might imagine of an action that requires the batter to limbo dance before reaching up to the ball. There's generally a little follow-through of the bat, a jerk, a whip, a whirl, a twirl, something that signals that the ramp has been played. You don't miss a ramp.
On first viewing, it did not seem as if Ibrahim had played a ramp at all. He barely moved, a slight sway from the line of an 88mph short ball, bat face turned up but pointing to third man and, with zero extension of the arms, he simply let the ball glide off of it. It wasn't frictionless as much as force-less in that none of the force came from him, it was only redirecting the force generated by Cummins. Imagine the stillness of a backfoot defensive shot that drops the ball dead, except turn it inside out and 180 degrees round, then conceive it in the vertical plane rather than horizontal, sort of like the city-bending scenes in Inception. Or something.
But what was striking about it was how it encapsulated perfectly the evolution in Afghanistan's batting, one that has taken them to their best ODI World Cup showing ever. Everything about the shot - clinical, risk-assessed, productive - is what Afghanistan's batting has been in this tournament, aside from a couple of glitches against Bangladesh and New Zealand.
They have batted first and defended successfully against England and would have done so against Australia had - and let's be blunt here - Mujeeb Ur Rahman not dropped a dolly at short fine leg at Wankhede Stadium. More impressively, they have chased down a range of targets - 283 against Pakistan, 242 against Sri Lanka and 180 against Netherlands - with the same, unpanicked ease.
The top order has been the spine but it's more accurately the top five, three of whom are averaging over fifty. They have 11 fifties between them, as many as their entire batting orders managed in the last two World Cups combined. Afghanistan's top three - Ibrahim, Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Rahmat Shah - have averaged 41.36 at a strike rate of 82.95 and while their batting strike rate in the first powerplay is in the lower half for sides at this tournament (81.08), their average of 55.71 is the highest.
They have valued solidity over explosiveness and though it is a slightly old school approach to building totals, it's difficult to argue it has not worked for them. More often than not, it has provided the perfect platform for the likes of the captain Hashmatullah Shahidi and Azmatullah Omarzai to continue building on.
The whiteboard photo of Afghanistan's target against Sri Lanka broken down in ten-over blocks might have gone viral but it is a red herring of the methods of their batting. Breaking down a chase into blocks is hardly batting rocket science. The clearer strategic shift, from previous ODI World Cups especially, has been to become a more optimal and efficient batting unit. They are making sure to score from more balls, evident in the plummeting of their dot-ball percentages from the 2015 World Cup of 65.8% to 52.1% in this tournament. And it hasn't come at the cost of their boundary hitting. Their balls-per-boundary figure has also fallen, from 14.9 in the 2015 tournament to 10.8 this year.
It has totally changed how we view Afghanistan's batting which, for years, was seen (perhaps unfairly) as a potentially explosive but naïve unit; in it for a good time, not necessarily a long time, and more often than not, to be bailed out by the bowling. If it used to feel like one or two Afghanistan wickets could bring a cluster, that hasn't been the case at this tournament. They've become better at stringing together partnerships - 14 over 50 in this tournament, nearly as many as the last two World Cups combined - and clear signs that they are better at preventing collapses (their average partnership per dismissal in this tournament of 36.29 is nearly double of 2015 and 15 runs more than 2019).
All of which makes it sound very Trott-esque who did, after all, average 51 in ODIs with a strike rate of 77. But it's important to acknowledge the skills and adaptability of the batters themselves because they are the ones who have executed on the ground. The adaptability especially has been a surprise given that this is a group of players more attuned to T20s.
The defeat to Australia was shattering but this is not the Afghanistan we are used to. Their semi-final chances may not be entirely in their hands anymore and yet, as with the Ibrahim Zadran ramp, they have never looked more in control.
"I think it's a case more of just being better all-around, and thinking more about your all-around game," Trott explained before the game against Netherlands last week. "Afghanistan [players] naturally grow up playing a lot more T20 cricket than any other format, so the skills for T20 are there. It's about adding to that sort of base of T20 skills. As you see, 50-over cricket is a long time and you have to be able to, I think, ride the sort of ebbs, and flows of a game."
Not that this efficiency and solidity, the calculated risk-taking has been a buzzkill to the essential joy of Afghanistan's game and their progress through the tournament. Not in the least. On the contrary, it has made it even more enjoyable to watch because invariably the smarter batting has not only enhanced the overall threat of their bowling attack, but also passed on that sense of shared responsibility.
Rashid Khan, for example, is their leading wicket-taker but he's arguably not been their most impactful. Four other bowlers in the squad have better averages and strike rates. Naveen-ul-Haq and Fazalhaq Farooqi have swung the ball as much as any fast bowler, Mohammad Nabi has been the tournament's most economical non-Indian bowler and Omarzai has had an immense all-round tournament, averaging over 50 with the bat (and the highest strike rate in that top six) and the best strike rate among the bowlers for his seven wickets. Mujeeb Ur Rahman has not even had to have a great tournament and yet they're still the only attack in the tournament other than India to not concede 300.
It has been, by every metric, a collective triumph.
The defeat to Australia was shattering but this is not the Afghanistan we are used to. They began the tournament with two dispiriting losses but came back to win four of the next five and very nearly a fourth in a row. Their semi-final chances may not be entirely in their hands anymore and yet, as with the Ibrahim ramp, they have never looked more in control.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo