“If they can carry that mindset to the World Cup, that’s the biggest positive for this team which has risen from the ashes of battle scars from back home and created a fan-base for themselves the world over”
Up until 2018, Afghanistan were probably no pushovers courtesy a strong bowling unit manned by two spinners who could put the best of batsmen in a strangle. Most of their victories stemmed from this bowling unit which made up for the fallacies in the batting line-up and put opposition teams off their radar.
This is perhaps evident from their batting records in ODIs till 2018. In 86 matches, of which they won exactly half (43), Afghanistan’s batting had an overall average of 24.11. Their mean score in this time frame is roughly 190, which means they are likely to make an average of 190 runs in an ODI innings, which is below par for a team that managed to win more than its fair share of games in their first few years in International cricket.
Bowling was indeed the catalyst behind Afghanistan’s surge and once they got past that, teams knew bundling out their batsmen was a mere walk on a bed of roses. If the war-torn nation had to rise to its full potential, they needed their batsmen to atleast rack up average scores that forced the opposition to panic against their long array of spinners.
The change had to come from somewhere and it came in the form of Phil Simmons, a saviour of sorts for several teams low in the rankings table. The former West Indian International had succesful stints with West Indies, Zimbabwe and Ireland before he took over the mantle of Afghanistan head coach.
At the onset, Simmons was ready to accept that their batting was nowhere close to where it ought to be. But it came with the fact that their bowling was stupendously world-class. “The batting is a little bit less but the bowling (you will see a young fast bowler in this Test match hopefully) shows that they have young talent coming up. And exciting prospects for the future,” the coach had said as revealed by StarSports Live.
First things first, Simmons wanted to get the team out of a bowling-mindset. This involved putting batsmen under pressure situations, forcing them to take responsibility and put a price on their wicket. Before the qualifiers for the World Cup in March in Zimbabwe, Afghanistan batted first both times, looking to give their batsmen a trial run in the responsibility game.
Next came, utilising the talents of the batsmen while pushing in some sense into their heads. “As far as the batsmen are considered, I have asked everyone to focus on his own strengths. If my strength is to hit the ball over the top, that is what I must do; if my strength is accumulating and sweeping and reverse-sweeping, I must use that to my advantage. Each of us has a strength and we must use that during the match – that is my message. Everybody needs to be themselves because it is something about your play that brought you to the international level and made you successful, so you have to continue improving on that strength. Everybody can’t play like [Virat] Kohli. Everybody can’t play like a Viv Richards,” Simmons had said before the Qualifiers as revealed by ESPNcricinfo.
That everybody can’t be a Kohli or Richards was perhaps a revealing statement about Simmons’s coaching techniques for he wasn’t forcing the Afghanistan batsmen to play out of their skins or keep their natural instincts hidden. He was merely fine-tuning them to extract the best of what they had in them.
It showed in the batting returns of the team. An average that stood at 24.11 up until 2018 has hit 30.37 in 2018 in 20 matches. The average total has also risen from 190 to 205 and individuals have started contributing much more. Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Ihsanullah, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran and an immensely matured Mohammad Shahzad have been golden for Afghanistan this year with the bat.
It has shown in the results too with Afghanistan winning 12 of their 20 games with one of them ending in a tie (yesterday against India at Dubai). In the Asia Cup, Afghanistan were pitted in with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and expected to bow out early in the tournament. Instead, they ended up topping the group after bundling out the two sides.
In the Super Four, they tested Pakistan and Bangladesh but lost two close games which threw them out of the tournament but in a game close to a dead rubber status, Afghanistan pushed India to a corner and tied the match to hold their heads high while bowing out.
They were perhaps the team of the tournament, even considering the Indian juggernaut which has been unbeaten so far. Surprisingly, the crucial factor has been their batting. In the five games they played, Afghanistan piled up totals of 249, 255, 257, 246 and 252. They seem like pretty average scores, possibly high for a team like Afghanistan in times when 300-plus scores are the norm. But this Asia Cup has been an anomaly. Teams have struggled to scores 250-plus scores and the highest has been India’s 281 against Hong Kong. Four of the other five teams (except India which successfully chased lower totals) have recorded totals lower than Afghanistan in this tournament.
The batting resurgence is timely for a team preparing for the World Cup and Simmons has indeed been a catalyst in this unforeseen turnover. Before the Asia Cup, the West Indian, in an interview on Cricbuzz, had stated – “From my point of view, any tournament you go into, you want to try and win. What we are looking at is how we play cricket and the ability to play our at our best every time we go out there. If we can play at our best – not every player will be at his best every day, but once we can find three or four or five players each day at their best on a day, we know we can be competitive against each team and if they are not at their best, we can win the game. That’s what we are looking at, to be at our best; half of the team to be at our best on the day and we’ll take it from there.”
If they can carry that mindset to the World Cup, that’s the biggest positive for this team which has risen from the ashes of battle scars from back home and created a fan-base for themselves the world over.