Afghanistan returned from the pit’s edge to qualify for next year’s ICC Cricket World Cup when they defeated Ireland by five wickets in a tension-filled last Super Six match of the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018 at the Harare Sports Club on Friday.
Afghanistan were set for an early flight home when they lost their first three group matches but managed to qualify for the Super Six after Nepal upset Hong Kong. After winning both their Super Six matches against the Windies and the United Arab Emirates, they received an unexpected lifeline on Thursday when the UAE held their nerves to shock Zimbabwe by three runs.
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In Friday’s shootout, Afghanistan suffocated Ireland for runs on what looked like a good batting surface and restricted them to 209 for seven. They then almost made a hash of a straightforward run-chase before coasting home for the loss of five wickets with five balls to spare in what turned out to be a battle of attrition.
Afghanistan have joined the Windies as the second qualifier from the Zimbabwe event and the two sides will now go head to head in the final at the Harare Sports Club on Sunday.
Opener Mohammad Shahzad, who was named player of the match for a brisk knock of 54, said Afghanistan had found form in time.
“We lost a couple of matches but we played good cricket in the Super Sixes. We had to win this game. The plan was simple, I was looking for the loose deliveries, I did not care whether (it was a) spinner or fast bowler, I went for it. I believe in myself and the senior management staff encouraged me. Today I waited for the loose delivery and smashed the ball. Let’s see West Indies, we are coming!” Shahzad said.
Afghanistan’s fairy-tale run in the qualifier resembled that of Pakistan’s and Australia’s successes in the 1992 and 1999 World Cups.
Pakistan, after losing three of their first four matches and a no-result against England, won their last five matches to win the 1992 event at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Similarly, Australia lifted the silverware at Lord’s in 1999 when they won six matches on the trot after making a dismal start to the tournament.
Next year’s event, which will take place in England and Wales from May 30 to July 14, will be Afghanistan’s second successive ICC Cricket World Cup, after they had also featured in the 2015 tournament in Australia and New Zealand, where they famously defeated Scotland by one wicket with three balls to spare in Dunedin.
Ireland, electing to bat first, lacked intensity and urgency as they failed to build partnerships and in the end had to be content with 209 for seven in 50 overs. Their inability to take control of the proceedings is evident from the fact that they played a total of 174 dot balls and scored only 102 runs in the last 20 overs, including 66 runs for the loss of three wickets in the last 10 overs.
William Porterfield and Paul Stirling added 53 runs for the first wicket in 94 balls, while the third wicket partnership between Stirling and Niall O’Brien produced 44 runs from 52 balls. The other partnership of note was between Kevin O’Brien and Gary Wilson, who added 47 runs for the sixth wicket from 45 balls.
Stirling was Ireland’s top scorer with a clean 55 from 87 balls with three fours and a six, before he was run-out, while Niall O’Brien, playing in his 100th ODI, contributed 36 off 41 with four fours and a six. Kevin O’Brien played a useful hand of less than run-a-ball 41 with three fours and a six.
For Afghanistan, Rashid Khan picked up three wickets for 40 runs and is now just one wicket away from becoming the quickest bowler to 100 ODI wickets. Fast bowler Dawlat Zadran took two for 54.
Ireland captain William Porterfield said his team had not got enough runs on the board.
“We were probably 25 runs short. Then again, in games like this we can’t fault anyone. We had opportunities but we lost three games. We had some key moments but we could not take them. We now get back for some rest and recuperation,” Porterfield said.
In their turn at the wicket, Mohammad Shahzad scored his first half-century in seven matches (six ODIs), and dominated the 86 runs first-wicket partnership with Gulbadin Naib in 16.3 overs.
Shahzad’s 54 came off 50 balls and included six fours and two sixes. He became first of off-spinner Simi Singh’s victims who finished with impressive figures of three for 30.
Following Shahzad’s dismissal, Ireland tightened the screws around Afghanistan and were rewarded with quick wickets of Rahmat Shah (12), Gulbadin (45) and Mohammad Nabi (12) as Afghanistan reached 151 for four in 40 overs, needing 59 off the last 10 overs.
However, Samiullah Shenwari (27), captain Asghar Stanikzai (39 not out) and left-hander Najibullah Zadran (17 not out) pushed the ball for ones and twos with an odd boundary here and there to see the team through, much to the relief of their team members who burst into a celebration.