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Afghanistan show they are more than just their spinners

For the second straight game, their victory was set up by the two openers and a left-arm seamer with the ability to swing the ball

Hemant Brar
Hemant Brar
Mujeeb Ur Rahman with the new ball, Mohammad Nabi after the powerplay, and Rashid Khan later on. That was the blueprint of Afghanistan's success for years, especially in T20Is. The three played such a big role that Afghanistan became synonymous with spinners.
Of late, though, it is becoming more and more evident that Afghanistan are no longer just about their spinners. For the second successive match at T20 World Cup 2024, their victory was set up by their openers Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran, and left-arm seamer Fazalhaq Farooqi.
In the first match against Uganda, Gurbaz and Ibrahim added 154 in just 14.3 overs to help Afghanistan post 183 for 5. Later, Farooqi dismantled Uganda with a career-best 5 for 9.
If one overlooked their performance by saying it came against an inexperienced side, the trio did a repeat against New Zealand on Friday evening.
On a Providence pitch that had something for both seamers and spinners, Gurbaz and Ibrahim had a wobbly start. Gurbaz should have been bowled on 12 but the bails didn't come off. He should have been run out on 19 only for Conway to fumble the throw. Similarly, Ibrahim was dropped on 13 and then on 24.
While they did add 44 in the powerplay, the next four overs - two of which were bowled by offspinner Michael Bracewell - produced only 11 runs. As a result, Afghanistan were 55 for no loss after ten overs.
Gurbaz is supposed to be the aggressor at the top, with Ibrahim more of an anchor. But at that point, both were batting at less than a run a ball.
"I was a bit frustrated as I didn't start that way I wanted to," Gurbaz said later. "It was not easy either, especially against spinners. Me and Ibrahim were discussing that we should keep calm and just play good cricketing shots. We knew 130-140 would be a good total on this wicket.
"Our plan was to play out [Mitchell] Santner. Even if we were to score 20 runs off him, we would have been happy, because we could attack other bowlers."
During the drinks break, they were told by the team management to get a move on. When Bracewell came for his third over, the 11th of the innings, Gurbaz and Ibrahim combined to hit him for three sixes - all towards deep midwicket, the biggest boundary (86 metres) on this ground. That turned the tide in Afghanistan's favour.
The next two overs produced two more sixes as Ibrahim attacked Ferguson and Gurbaz took on Boult. They added 103 in 14.3 overs, thus becoming the first opening pair to register century stands in two successive innings in the T20 World Cup history.
"We have the same haircut, we are of the same age, and we are from the same city and same village," Gurbaz said about his partnership with Ibrahim. "We play for the same club as well. And we have been opening together for a long time, from Under-16 to Under-19 and to here.
"Our communication is very good. We know each other well and know what we can do. If it's not my day, he tries to take the bowlers on. If it's my day, I tell him to just give the strike to me."
Friday was Gurbaz's day. After Ibrahim fell for 44 off 41, he carried on and scored 80 off 56 balls. That lifted Afghanistan to 159, a much higher total than they had in mind initially.
Still, it was not something out of New Zealand's reach. Then turned up Farooqi, "No. 1 naughty guy," as Gurbaz called him when he tried to distract him during a pre-match interview.
Apart from being playful, Farooqi is someone who is extremely confident in his ability as a bowler. Against Uganda, it took him just two balls to strike. Here, just one. Once again, it was full delivery that moved in late. Swing and miss for Finn Allen. Swing and hit for Farooqi.
After Devon Conway chipped him into the hands of the extra cover, Farooqi moved around the wicket for Daryl Mitchell. It's an angle he does not hesitate to use against right-hand batters. From there, he got a length ball to straighten and kiss the outside edge of Mitchell's bat. Gurbaz was behind the stumps to do the rest.
Farooqi's three wickets in the powerplay meant Rashid had two new batters to bowl at. It did not take him long to run through them. Fittingly, it was Farooqi who sealed the win and finished with figures of 4 for 17. It was the first instance of a bowler taking two consecutive four-wicket hauls at the T20 World Cup.
Apart from the bowling skills, Farooqi has also added some dancing skills to his celebrations - something, Rashid said, their new bowling coach Dwayne Bravo is teaching them.
Talking about Farooqi's bowling, Rashid said: "He is giving us the base we want. Especially in T20s, the powerplay is very important. And the way Farooqi has bowled in the last two games is amazing. He is a very skilful bowler. He still needs to improve a lot of things but once he understands how skillful he is, he is going to be very dangerous in future."
But for now, Farooqi, and Gurbaz and Ibrahim, have shown Afghanistan do not have to rely solely on their spinners.

Hemant Brar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo