Chennai: Afghanistan could not handle the weight of expectations and wilted under pressure to go down tamely against New Zealand, losing their World Cup match by 149 runs in Chennai on Wednesday.
The Afghans got a taste of their own medicine when left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner spun a web around them to claim three wickets and moved to the top of the bowling charts with 11 wickets. The victory took the Black Caps’ tally to eight points and to the top of the table.
Afghanistan came into the match after having beaten defending champions England convincingly, and were expected to give New Zealand a fright. But that was not to be in conditions that were in their favour, more than on the placid pitch in New Delhi on Sunday.
Not utilising the conditons well
Big games are all about handling the pressure, making the right decisions and tightening the screws at the right time to throttle the opponents by not giving them the space to sneak through their fingers. It is what the Afghanistan players did well to score their second World Cup win in 18 matches, defeating England by 69 runs.
However, today the world-class spinners didn’t use the conditions well and their fielding were not up to the mark. Afghan skipper Hashmatullah Shahidi won the toss and elected to field, thinking that the dew will affect his bowlers. Instead, they should have grabbed the chance to score runs freely on a fresh wicket, giving their batters the much-needed experience of tackling a wily bowling attack, and then put the New Zealand batting under pressure with their strength, the bowling.
In fact, New Zealand did the opposite, by scoring runs and putting the Afghan batting under pressure on a wicket that offered more spin and bounce under lights.
New Zealand were losing their way after the 20-over mark, losing three wickets for two runs. A 144-run fifth-wicket partnership between skipper Tom Latham and Glenn Phillips took the Black Caps to an imposing total.
Latham was dropped twice, first when he was on 35 and then on 38, both off the bowling of Rashid Khan, which proved costly. As many as five catches, starting from when Will Young, the opener who replaced injured Kane Williamson in the starting line-up, was put down when he was on one. The dropped catches allowed New Zealand to put up crucial partnerships to take the score to 288 for six in 50 overs.
“I would say it is not just pressure. It is happening way too frequently,” head coach Jonathan Trott said in response to a question from Gulf News. “We really need to improve on our fielding. We really work hard on it during training, but we need to do it in games now.”
Once again, Rashid Khan didn’t bowl in the powerplay when another wicket could have pushed New Zealand on the backfoot. Explaining the strategy behind the move, the former England batter said: “We have to wait for the ball to reach a particular state so that he could grip the ball and spin it both ways, when the ball is not new and not slippery.”
Home advantage to Kiwis
Batting first and putting up a big score was the template that gave success against England. Netherlands did the same against South Africa and the Afghans should have continued to do the same. Instead, by electing to bowl first, they played their cards way too early.
With both Devon Conway and Santner having the experience of playing at their home ground for Chennai Super Kings, the New Zealanders read the wicket well and bowled accordingly, which made the difference. The Black Caps’ pacers were bowling more cutters, getting the extra bounce on the wicket and the lack of pace didn’t give the Afghan batters the freedom to play their shots.
Santner in particular, was holding the ball back in the air, bowling in the mid-80 KMPH, which forced the Afghan batters to take the extra risk allowing him to reap the rewards. The left-arm spinner bowled former Afghanistan skipper Mohammad Nabi with a beauty that spun and beat the bat, something similar to what Ravindra Jadeja did to Steve Smith at the same venue.
Meandered into a no-contest
Once runs were hard to come by and coupled with the wickets of openers Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran and skipper Hashmatullah Shahidi being dismissed early in a clear demonstration of top-class fielding by Santner, the game meandered into a no-contest much before the halfway mark of Afghanistan’s innings.
Still, the 15,525 spectators waited patiently to see some miracle happen. While the fans were hoping to see Afghanistan master New Zealand, instead the giant-killers of England received a masterclass from the 2019 finalists in all departments of the game that included the mental aspect and the tactics.
The biggest difference between the two matches for Afghanistan is their positive intent in batting. The self-belief that helped them score 284, which is just four runs less than what New Zealand had scored in Chennai.