Match Analysis

Madness beats joy as Afghanistan miss their big chance against Sri Lanka

Afghanistan are one of the greatest things to happen to the game, yes, but they are also professional cricketers who want to win matches

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
Hazratullah Zazai is on a constant audition to be your favourite cricketer. He plays cricket with garage punk rock hitting. When he faces his first ball from Suranga Lakmal, it's full and swinging in at the base of off stump. Zazai tries to force to square leg; it's the wrong length, wrong line, and his bat face is nearly the wrong way around. The ball whistles past off stump.
The next ball is short outside off stump, Zazai gets quickly into position and pulls high over midwicket, where it just about carries for six.
Sri Lanka have a series of discussions that end with the man placed at deep midwicket within inches of where the last ball flew. Some batsmen would look at that and decide that the next ball should go somewhere else. Zazai looks at that, and he plays the exact shot he wants to play, which is a lofted one to the newly moved fielder. It drops short because of a slight mis-hit.
There is a madness in what he does, but also joy.
There's a feeling among some that this Afghanistan team is a magical mystery pink flying unicorn that spreads love throughout the universe. Of course fans feel this way. How is it even possible there is a team from Afghanistan in cricket, let alone one this full of wonders? They shouldn't exist, and yet there they are, swinging to leg and bowling magic tricks right in front of our eyes. But they are also professional cricketers, some of whom have been playing internationals for more than a decade. In their ranks are some of the most exciting franchise cricketers in the world. They have been funded by the German, US and Indian governments, and have much support from the ICC.
In the nets before this match, Hamid Hassan was bowling with a catapult vest on to track his workload. Unicorns don't wear state-of-the-art sport science devices.
It is a disservice to think of them only as this good-news story. Afghanistan playing cricket is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to this sport, but these players are not just something to make us feel better. They are cricketers who want to win matches, and they qualified for this tournament by winning games of cricket. On their journey they have beaten Test nations, they are a Test nation.
They earned the right to be here, and on Tuesday they had their best chance of beating a Test nation at a World Cup.
Last game, Afghanistan batted first and used their trusty opening bowler Mujeeb Ur Rahman. They could have batted first here and then had Mujeeb bowling to two left-handed opening batsmen in a good match-up. But they wanted to attack. They sent Sri Lanka in, unleashed their quicks on the helpful pitch, and all they had to do was put the ball in the right area.
They did not. Dawlat Zadran's first over was okay; it included a wide and one on the hip that tickled away to the rope. But returning warrior Hassan's over was disastrous. It started with a warm-up ball boundary, and for the rest of the over he was everywhere - it was like he was not only searching for line and length, but had forgotten what the concept meant. Last game he started with two maidens to David Warner - delivered to a seven-two field. Today he would have needed 72 fielders to stem the flow.
His next over started with five wides, there were two boundaries, and after two overs he had given up 31 runs. Dawlat had only let six from his first two overs, but he joined the Jackson Pollock-painted pitch map for the next over. One four, a five-wides bouncer, a standard leg-side wide, and then another wayward four leg-byes. When Zadran and Hassan came back, they bowled eight more overs, taking 3 for 40 combined. As if their previous spells never existed. As if there were different men on the field before.
After five overs Sri Lanka were 52 for 0. Kusal Perera on 24 from 12, Dimuth Karunaratne 11 from 18 and extras had scored 17. Sri Lanka scored 25.8% of their runs in the first five overs. Extras would end up as second-top scorer with 35; Afghanistan have never allowed more.
When people think of how Afghanistan play, it is this combination of mystery spin, slogging and fast bowlers - an unhinged energy orb buzzing around. But their most capped player is Mohammad Nabi. And he can slog, but his skill as a bowler is about as ordinary as you can get. Offspin, without an "other" one, which doesn't rip, is cricket at its most basic.
Not that Nabi is not a good bowler, it's just that the skills he has are so subtle that you need a microscope to see them. He doesn't spin the ball much and his action looks part-time. When he doesn't turn it, he drifts it; he was once not that accurate, that's no longer the case; he used to be an economy hawk, now he takes wickets too. Since the start of 2016, he's averaging 26 with an economy of 4.17. In the years before 2016, he averaged 38.
He may be cricket's best winkler; his smart cricket brain winkles each batsman to his own demise. The ball to Lahiru Thirimanne was slow, drifted possibly in on the angle, spun little. Then Kusal Mendis edged two straight deliveries, neither drifted or spun much, but one took his wicket. The ball to Angelo Mathews was quicker, catching the batsman unaware.
All of this looked so plain, but what Nabi does is change his arm angle, his pace, and all the things that make it look like he bowled three straight balls like a bloke in a club side who sells car parts for his day job. When in fact he's pretty much an evil genius whose main power is subtlety.
It was a completely crazy Afghanistan-style comeback with perhaps the most benign looking offspin you'd ever see. When Nabi was taking wickets, it felt like a universe made of rainbows. Afghanistan looked caught up in their own brilliance. There was almost a run-out every ball, such was Sri Lanka's panic, and wickets fell at the other end too. It was a collapse so immense that 144 for 1 became 201 all out.
They could not have started worse, or finished better. You cannot enjoy the magnificence without understanding their entire cricket is a balance between angels and demons. They can be brilliant, they can be terrible, and both at once.
They were only chasing 201, and rain had shortened their innings.
Before the game, captain Gulbadin Naib was asked if a rain-affected match would play into his hands, he said: "So if we can reduce the overs it will be much better for us. We have potential now so like limited overs, so like everyone knows about Afghanistan batting line-up, so it will be good."
They had made a comeback, they had the short game, this was their game.
The first ball from Lasith Malinga swung in a boomerang arc. Mohammad Shahzad immediately took another guard; from the start it looked like a different Afghanistan. It looked like a statement of intent, this would be tough, the ball would move, but they would try bat it out, not blast it out.
Hashmatullah Shahidi made 4 off 17, which even for him is slow. Najibullah Zadran was playing within himself and waiting for the bad ball. Gulbadin was playing a captain's knock despite the question over his captaincy. Even Zazai dug in, after being 20 off 14 balls, played shots that resembled regular cricket. They were doing their best against a disciplined Sri Lankan bowling performance.
From the five-over mark of Sri Lanka's innings, it was perhaps Afghanistan's most sensible cricket. They fought back, dug in and stretched the game as far as they could. It was a great effort, but not enough.
Afghanistan need not audition to be your favourite team; they have won the cricket world's hearts by merely existing, and been loved many times over by being so incredible to watch. But what they want to do is win games, that is why they are here. There is brilliance, angels, and demons in how they play. They had a chance to beat a Test nation at the World Cup; the madness beat the joy.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber