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How far can Afghanistan's six-centric approach take them?

It's not really worked for West Indies so far, but their spiritual successors have made a strong start, and have Pakistan's bowlers in their sights

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Hazratullah Zazai (T20I strike rate: 154.65) embodies Afghanistan's approach with the bat  •  ICC via Getty

Hazratullah Zazai (T20I strike rate: 154.65) embodies Afghanistan's approach with the bat  •  ICC via Getty

It was the batting approach that defined the most successful men's T20 international side of the last decade: why worry about minimising dot balls when you can hit more sixes than the opposition? West Indies embraced that volatile, high-risk, high-reward strategy on their way to winning the 2012 and 2016 World Cups but it has faltered so far in the UAE: lose to Bangladesh on Friday and they will effectively be knocked out less than a week after their title defence began.
But West Indies have natural successors as the poster boys for their focus on six-hitting. In the five-and-a-half years between men's T20 World Cups, Afghanistan were by far the closest team to West Indies in terms of balls per six, dot-ball percentage, and ratio between fours and sixes. They have adopted a similar gameplan: packing their batting line-up with power-hitters rather than strike-rotators, and accepting that occasional low scores were worth the trade-off. "Boundary-hitting and outscoring the opposition in terms of boundaries is very important to your chances of success in T20," Andy Flower, their consultant coach, said in the build-up to this tournament.
But Pakistan, their opponents on Friday, will present a stern challenge. They have restricted India and New Zealand to 151 and 134 respectively in their first two games and their attack is an enticing combination of left-arm swing, two right-arm quicks, and three different types of spinner. With the game played in Dubai - where even West Indies' power-hitters have struggled to clear the vast boundaries - Afghanistan's batters will need to strike a balance, looking to target specific bowlers when match-ups are favourable.
"We don't have that kind of mindset that we just have to focus on hitting many sixes. You have to adjust yourself with the wicket as well," Rashid said on Thursday in a virtual press conference. "Initially it's very hard to go out and start hitting sixes and that's what happened in the last couple of warm-up games against West Indies and also the main game against Scotland: the openers took a bit of time in the middle and they read the conditions, they read the situation, and then started going hard.
"It's all about targeting your own bowler and when you get that, you have to target that. It's not about just going across for every ball. Whenever we get the opportunity to score some runs and we get the balls in our own zone, we as a team, we have that planning that we just need to go there and finish it with full confidence.
"It's not just about hitting too many sixes. These grounds are very hard to hit sixes [on], the wickets are not as good to hit the sixes. But still, taking ones, twos and boundaries will be something that is very key."
As ever with Afghanistan, there is a wider context to their performances. This World Cup is their first series since the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban's takeover and while Rashid insisted that "things are getting better, getting normal back home", he reiterated that it was crucial for his team to "give [people] the kind of performances and kind of wins that they can celebrate" at a time of upheaval and distress.
"We have only this thing in the mind: that we're here for the World Cup," he said. "We're playing five games and we need to win three games. We have the skills and quality in the team that we can qualify for the semi-finals. That's the only thing at the moment in the mind of each and every player. You can only do what's in your hands.
"It's in our hands to play the five games of this group stage and try to qualify to the semi-finals and make the country proud." If their batting line-up clicks on Friday, they will be well-placed to do just that.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98