ICC World Cup 2023 – Afg vs Ban – Afghanistan moments of brilliance underpinned by shoddy basics

Mujeeb Ur Rahman grinned sheepishly. Nobody at the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association Stadium in Dharamsala was quite sure what he was waiting for. But as Mujeeb undid the drawstring on his trousers, it became clear. It was about the item in substitute fielder Abdul Rahman’s hand as he ran out and gave it away for good – Mujeeb had forgotten to wear his box.

It was a light moment, one which drew smiles from players on both sides and laughter in the commentary box. Yet it also served as an encapsulation of Afghanistan’s six-wicket defeat to Bangladesh in their opening match of the 2023 World Cup: for all their talent, this was a side short on attention to detail.

There were passages of this game where Afghanistan competed well. At the first drinks break, they had seen off the opening spells of Bangladesh’s seamers, and while Ibrahim Zadran had top-edged a sweep to deep backward square leg, they were ticking along nicely at 83 for 1 off 15 overs.

And in Bangladesh’s chase, they struck early. Najibullah Zadran’s direct hit from backward point found Tanzim Hasan just short of his ground at the non-striker’s end, while Fazalhaq Farooqi induced a chop-on from Litton Das. At 27 for 2 in the seventh over – and with Rashid Khan yet to bowl – Afghanistan had Bangladesh under some pressure, even if the target was only 157.

But first with the bat and then in the field, they brought about their own demise. Rahmat Shah’s dismissal, miscuing a slog sweep against the spin off the first ball after drinks, set about a capitulation of 9 for 73. Perhaps surprised by a slower pitch than most had anticipated, nobody in their middle order managed more than 22.

Hashmatullah Shahidi, their captain, personified a collective failure to find the right tempo with the bat. He had pledged on the eve of their tournament opener to play positively, but struggled painfully to 5 off 22 at one stage, rendered shotless by Mehidy Hasan Miraz and Shakib. Shahidi eventually started to shift through the gears, then lurched into the sixth one without the clutch down, hoicking Mehidy up to mid-on for 18 off 38.

“We just had soft dismissals, really,” Jonathan Trott, their head coach, said. “Guys giving their wicket away, and going against what we had as a game plan. We got close to where we wanted to be, playing in the warm-up games, but it’s about dealing with the pressure of World Cup cricket and playing in major tournaments. That’s where we fell short today.

“The middle order needs to take more responsibility; but also, if there’s momentum in the game, try and wrestle it back. It just seemed to go all Bangladesh’s way. No one stayed there and tried to absorb some pressure. It seemed to be one-dimensional, a little bit. That’s something we’ve got to work on.”

In the field, there were moments of brilliance: Najibullah’s direct hit, and Rahmat’s spectacular catch at mid-off to dismiss Mehidy for 57. And yet Mehidy had already had two lives, dropped by Najibullah at point on 16 and by Mujeeb at deep third on 23. And neither was a difficult chance.

The moment of defeat told the story: having plucked the ball out of the sky and held onto a screamer six overs previously, Rahmat misfielded Najmul Hossain Shanto’s off drive on the bounce, and the ball spilled away to the boundary for four. Afghanistan’s moments of brilliance were not underpinned by the basics.

“We’ve seen it in spurts,” Trott said. “We just need to do it more consistently – over longer periods of time. Certainly over 100 overs for an ODI. It’s a long day, and you need to be on all the time. Being more consistent in our basics is what’s going to look after us going forward in this tournament. I’m looking forward to seeing how they respond.”

This was Afghanistan’s 13th World Cup defeat in a row, spanning three editions, and Sunday marks three months since their most recent ODI win. Heading into this tournament, they were perceived to be a dangerous team in these conditions, but with their next two fixtures against India and England – both in Delhi – they could soon be out of semi-final contention before the World Cup is two weeks old.

Perhaps they simply do not play this format enough. A relative dearth of recent 50-over fixtures is a theme across teams at this tournament, but most sides have named squads that have extensive experience to fall back on. Afghanistan are a young side, and played fewer ODIs (29) between World Cups than any other team at this tournament.

“We know the areas we need to improve,” Trott said. “We’ve got two big games in Delhi now against India and England. We travel to Delhi tomorrow, have a couple of practices, and then a big match against India [on Wednesday] which is going to be a great spectacle, and I know the boys will be really, really up for it.”

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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