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Match Analysis

Belligerent Afghanistan prioritise boundary-hitting to send Group 2 warning

Batters follow successful West Indies template to start campaign with crushing win

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Najibullah Zadran was off the blocks in a hurry, Afghanistan vs Scotland, T20 World Cup 2021, Group 2, Sharjah, October 25, 2021

Najibullah Zadran lashed a 30-ball fifty as Afghanistan targeted the ropes  •  ICC via Getty

It was as candid a statement as you could imagine. "The only happiness in Afghanistan is cricket," Mohammad Nabi said in his pre-match press conference. "If we do well in the tournament and win the games, the fans are really happy and there will be a lot of smiles on faces and inshallah everything will be changed."
This was Afghanistan's first full international match for eight months, and their first since the withdrawal of US troops and the Taliban's takeover. Many of their players - most notably Rashid Khan, who stepped down as captain minutes after their T20 World Cup squad was announced - have been uneasy about the situation but their task in this competition is clear: to bring joy to those back home who desperately need it.
There were several hundred supporters - the majority waving flags, chanting and cheering every boundary and wicket - in Sharjah to witness the start of their Super 12s campaign, a crushing 130-run win against Scotland. It might be cast aside as irrelevant, coming against an Associate nation, but the Scots were battle-hardened after spending the last month in the Gulf and beating Bangladesh on their way to topping Group B in the first phase, and took down Rashid to seal victory in the teams' last meeting at an ICC event.
It was a measure of Afghanistan's dominance that the game had been won before Rashid - who came on to bowl the seventh over with Scotland 37 for 5 chasing 191 - had made a contribution. The star was Mujeeb Ur Rahman, whose mixture of offbreaks, googlies and carrom balls proved impossible to pick. He produced figures of 5 for 20 bowling unchanged with the new ball, striking three times in the fourth over to turn the lights out on Scotland's bright start: Kyle Coetzer swung optimistically and lost his middle stump, while Calum MacLeod and Richie Berrington fell to tight lbw decisions, both upheld on review with the ball clipping leg stump. From 28 for 3, it was always likely to be a procession - and so it proved..
But perhaps more significant ahead of their four remaining group fixtures was Afghanistan's batting. They have never struggled to produce spinners - it is a measure of their depth that they were able to leave Qais Ahmad, in-demand in every T20 league outside of the IPL, out of their squad - but in their previous appearances at T20 World Cups have failed to fire with the bat.
Here they laid down a marker, showcasing an explosive, unorthodox and modern batting strategy which evoked West Indies' method in this format - a method which has won them two of the last three World Cups. Afghanistan failed to score from one-third of the balls they faced, chewing up 40 dots, but ruthlessly targeted the short, 57-metre boundary, hitting 13 fours and 11 sixes - eight of them towards the smaller side. A total of 190 was their highest in a T20 World Cup.
"For a long period of time now, that's the way they've played," Shane Burger, Scotland's coach, said. "You can speak about it as much as you want and you can train for it as much as you want, but until you get in there and actually see what they do and the way that they play… we'll learn from it and get better."
Packing their top order with power-hitters has been a clear strategy, with Mohammad Shahzad - the Afghan "Boom Boom" - returning to the side after a two-year absence as Hazratullah Zazai's opening partner, with the dynamic Rahmanullah Gurbaz slotting in at No. 3. One batter had access to a short leg-side boundary throughout the innings after Najibullah Zadran's promotion to No. 4, causing Scotland's captain Kyle Coetzer a headache that lasted so long it became a migraine.
"We had left-right combinations so for both the batsmen it was easy to target the shorter side," Naveen-ul-Haq explained. Afghanistan do not play at Sharjah again, instead moving to Dubai and then Abu Dhabi for the rest of the tournament, but their sixes were not plinked over the ropes: several landed on the roof, while one of Najibullah's lusty blows was the biggest of the Super 12s so far. If they can maintain the same attacking intent at larger venues, no team will relish bowling to them.
Najibullah's innings was particularly vital. Gurbaz, the only Afghan with 1000 career runs at a strike rate above 150 and widely seen as their brightest young batter at only 19, had been unusually becalmed in reaching 11 off 14 balls and they were in danger of a mid-innings slowdown after Zazai's dismissal. Instead, Najibullah lofted his fourth ball over extra cover for four, drilled Safyaan Sarif 100 metres over long-on, and slammed Mark Watt over wide long-off on the way to a 30-ball fifty. His partnership with Gurbaz was worth 87 in 8.4 overs, and Afghanistan added 108 in the last 10.
West Indies' success in 2012 and 2016 was built on outdoing their opponents' sixes count, and Afghanistan have openly embraced the same template. "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 after they compiled 189 in their final warm-up match last week - fittingly, against West Indies.
This win lays down a marker for the rest of the group: Afghanistan will feel bullish about winning their third game, against Namibia, and the net run-rate boost from this game means that if they can beat one of New Zealand, Pakistan or India, they could well squeeze into the semi-finals. Afghanistan's six-or-dot strategy is volatile and high-risk - but if it pays off, Nabi's wish for smiles back home could be fulfilled.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98