Rashid Khan the star attraction as underdogs Afghanistan seek Cricket World Cup upsets
Afghanistan are not the first team to change their captain on the eve of a major tournament and neither will they be the last.
But if it was a smooth build-up they wanted ahead of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, they did not get it after Gulbadin Naib was elected captain in place of Asghar Afghan.
Naib insists morale remains high, however, as the team gears up for their just their second ever Cricket World Cup.
Tenth in the ICC ODI Team Rankings, Afghanistan go into the tournament as rank outsiders but with some of their star players already making names for themselves on the biggest stage.
Hamid Hassan’s surprise call-up is a boost, with the fit-again right-arm bowler bolstering their pace attack in what will be his final ODI tournament.
Rashid Khan, the world’s number one T20i bowler, big-hitting Hazratullah Zazai and teenage spin sensation Mujeeb Ur Rahman are among the three most exciting young players in world cricket.
Experienced stars such as Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad and Afghan ensure this is a well-balanced squad too.
Having beaten Sri Lanka and tied with India at last year’s Asia Cup, Afghanistan have already proved they can compete with the big teams.
So, can Phil Simmons’ side spring an upset in England?
Key player: Rashid Khan
It says a lot about the impact 20-year-old leg-spinner Rashid Khan has had on the game, that rare expensive spells in the IPL are becoming more eye-catching than his usual mean bowling.
He could not carry Sunrisers Hyderabad into the final this year, but he did take 2-15 in the eliminator to finish the tournament on 17 wickets, with an economy rate of 6.38.
It is no surprise – Khan is, after all, the world’s best T20 bowler; he averages 11.56 in T20 internationals while in all T20 cricket he has 254 wickets from 169 matches.
Scarily for opponents at the Cricket World Cup, meanwhile, he has proved just as good in the longer format too.
In one-day international cricket, Rashid has taken 123 wickets in 54 innings, with an average of 15 and an economy rate of less than four runs per over.
He was one of three bowlers to claim ten wickets at the Asia Cup last year, meanwhile – and boasted the best economy rate of those three too.
If Khan can spin some magic on the English pitches this summer, Afghanistan can cause problems at this Cricket World Cup.
Others to watch
You would have been forgiven just 12 months ago for not knowing Hazratullah Zazai but the Afghan opener has not so much demanded attention since as he blasted his way into the cricketing stratosphere.
At the Afghanistan Premier League in October, Zazai hammered six sixes in an over. He had already scored 124 from 55 balls a couple of games earlier to announce his ability.
Since then, he has scored an unbeaten 162 from 62 balls – including 16 sixes – in a T20 international against Ireland, and his ODI form includes a half-century against the same opposition the following week.
Dubbed Afghanistan’s answer to Chris Gayle, some top-order fireworks at the World Cup would propel him further into the global spotlight.
Captain at the last Cricket World Cup, all-rounder Mohammad Nabi has been a key figure in Afghanistan’s rise to the top tier of international cricket.
And, at 34, the all-rounder remains a key figure in the current squad. He proved as much when he top-scored with a patient 64 and then claimed 1-18 in the fourth ODI against Ireland in Dehradun.
Either side of that series against the Irish in India, Nabi played for Melbourne Renegades at the Big Bash League and Sunrisers Hyderabad in the IPL.
During Afghanistan’s rise to prominence, Nabi has repeatedly proved himself capable of producing match-winning performances with bat or ball.
Another player at the forefront of Afghanistan’s early days in international cricket, Hamid Hassan has been granted a swansong at this Cricket World Cup.
But far from being just about sentimentality, the right-arm swing bowler could prove a key figure as a foil to the Afghanistan spin-bowling attack.
Injuries have ravaged his career, just as his country have forced their way on the biggest stage, but with 56 ODI wickets in 32 matches, Hamid Hassan has already proved what he can produce.
Hassan will quit ODI cricket after this World Cup and, after the role he played propelling Afghanistan up the world rankings, it would be a fitting send-off if he went out on a high.
Afghanistan squad for ICC Cricket World Cup 2019
|Gulbadin Naib (c)||28||All-rounder (RMF)|
|Rashid Khan||20||All-rounder (LS)|
|Aftab Alam||26||All-rounder (RMF)|
|Dawlat Zadran||31||Bowler (RF)|
|Hamid Hassan||31||Bowler (RF)|
|Mohammad Nabi||34||All-rounder (OS)|
|Mujeeb Ur Rahman||18||Bowler (OS)|
|Noor Ali Zadran||30||Batsman|
|Samiullah Shinwari||31||All-rounder (LS)|
June 4 – Afghanistan vs Sri Lanka (Sophia Gardens, Cardiff)
Afghanistan upset Sri Lanka at the Asia Cup and, with this fixture coming so early in the World Cup schedule, it is a chance for them to get a win on the board early on.
The team’s selectors have already accepted a top-four place would be a long-shot, but an early win could give them confidence to cause a few more upsets down the line.
Afghanistan Cricket World Cup 2019 fixtures
|June 1 (D/N)||Australia||County Ground, Bristol|
|June 4||Sri Lanka||Sophia Gardens, Cardiff|
|June 8||New Zealand||County Ground, Taunton|
|June 15 (D/N)||South Africa||Sophia Gardens, Cardiff|
|June 18||England||Old Trafford, Manchester|
|June 22||India||Rose Bowl, Southampton|
|June 24||Bangladesh||Rose Bowl, Southampton|
|June 29||Pakistan||Headingley, Leeds|
|July 4||West Indies||Headingley, Leeds|
Happy to avoid
As both teams have risen up the world rankings and demanded test status, their rivalry has grown with it.
Afghanistan drew their most recent ODI series with the Irish and the two teams have regularly caused each other problems.
Afghanistan chose Scotland as their opponents to gear up for the World Cup, while their previous full ODI series was against Ireland in Dehradun, India.
They drew the latter 2-2, prompting the leadership re-shuffle ahead of the World Cup, but they did at least show form when they last met World Cup-level opposition.
That was at the Asia Cup in Abu Dhabi, when they beat Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to progress to the second group stage, and then – after defeats to Pakistan and Bangladesh – they signed off with a thrilling tie against India.
Afghanistan come into this tournament as the tenth-placed team in the ICC ODI Rankings and are big outsiders as a result.
They have come a long way since their World Cup debut four years ago, however, and with young stars like Rashid Khan in their ranks, there is no reason they can not ruffle a few feathers.
Four years ago they were the whipping boys, but the big teams had better watch out this time – Sri Lanka have already learned at the Asia Cup what Afghanistan are now capable of.