England must beware the fearless aggression of Afghanistan in World Cup warm-up match

Scyld Berry
Rashid Khan is ranked number one by ICC in T20 internationals - AFP

Any team not at their best - and England have so many injuries that again they will not be at full strength for their second World Cup warm-up - is going to be vulnerable when confronted by Afghanistan’s unique style of cricket.

Pakistan’s spontaneous surge, under their captain and now president Imran Khan, to win the 1992 World Cup is part of the sport’s folklore. No team has been suddenly galvanised in the same way - except Afghanistan, who were in exactly the same position in the qualifying tournament for this World Cup, down and all but theoretically out. Then they swept everyone aside, including West Indies twice, to win the tournament.

If fearlessness and aggression are constantly required in normal daily life, however, maybe it is no surprise that Afghanistan’s cricket team should showcase these attributes.

Partly because Afghanistan have never played a competitive game in England before - only a friendly one-dayer against MCC, and their first warm-up game against Pakistan last Friday - England at the Oval will face Rashid Khan for the first time in a 50-over game.

Rashid is ranked number one by ICC in T20 internationals, and number three in ODIs. Like England’s Adil Rashid, who is one of the several injured, Afghanistan’s Rashid bowls leg-breaks and plenty of googlies, but is quicker through the air as he uses his powerful shoulders.

Rashid Khan played a big part in Afghanistan’s three-wicket victory over Pakistan Credit: PA

Rashid Khan played a big part in Afghanistan’s three-wicket victory over Pakistan in their first warm-up with his extra-physical and largely uncoached bowling style, characteristic of bowlers who have grown up in streets and open spaces, not schools and academies - and none the worse for that.

But it was Rashid’s brief innings against Pakistan which summed up the Afghan attitude. He came in with Afghanistan needing four runs off the last over from Wahab Riaz, who was bowling fast reverse-swinging yorkers. Every coach and analyst in world cricket would have instructed Rashid to look for a quick single and give the strike to the well-set and well-composed left-hander Hashmatullah Shahidi, who was unbeaten on 73 at the other end. Not a chance.

Rashid wound up for the most almighty slog. He sent the ball soaring over mid-off who ran back and almost caught the skyer just inside the boundary, keeping Rashid down to two runs. Rashid was furious with himself, presumably for not middling it for six, and slammed his bat against his pad - before finishing off the run-chase with two balls to spare.

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England’s batsmen will face every known form of right-arm bowling from Afghanistan, including what might just turn out to be the best spin attack in the tournament. In addition to Rashid’s wrist-spin, Mohammad Nabi offers quick offspin, and Mujeeb ur-Rahman mystery spin - mainly offbreaks with front-of-the-hand variations.

Their pace attack specialises more in old-ball reverse-swing than new-ball conventional swing - which is why Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow have to be prepared to face Mujeeb as an opening bowler. For almost the whole innings Afghanistan bowl spin from at least one end.

And a welcome, long over-due return has been made by Hamid Hassan, their fast bowler who was as quick as anyone in world cricket when - typical of Afghan zeal - he dived into a boundary fence in Dubai and wrecked his knees in 2012. With a shorter run-up, from wide of the crease, he still delivers whippy yorkers and bat-jarrers.

But for fearless aggression there is nothing to cap Afghanistan’s opening partnership of Mohammad Shahzad and the left-handed Hazratullah Zazai. Shahzad is one barrel of a wicketkeeper-batsman, skilled enough to have represented Pakistan A in his youth. Reputed to be the greatest trencherman in international cricket, his reputation is not belied when he runs between wickets.

Running between wickets, however, is rarely required of the batsman who partners Hazratullah, who grew up in Kabul. “My role-model is Chris Gayle,” Hazratullah says and, at the age of 21, he is already the equal of the Universe Boss in physique and hitting range on the leg-side. He has hit six sixes in one over, and an unbeaten 162 against Ireland - in a T20 international. Of his 62 balls, he hit 16 for six.

For England, after coming to the boil nicely in their ODI series against Pakistan, this second warm-up game is superfluous. Yet they need to be forewarned and forearmed before their World Cup qualifying match - on a used pitch at Old Trafford - against Afghanistan, who can unleash, against anybody, a knock-out punch.