On a ground in which sirs Viv, Botham and the every bit as knightly – on a cricket pitch at least – Chris Gayle have entertained past crowds, Afghanistan’s opening batters took it upon themselves to provide a similar display. That’s certainly how it started as Hazratullah Zazai and Noor Ali Zadran raced to 61 off their first 10 overs.
Alas, for the spectacle, the healthy Afghan following and the game itself, the opening tempo was more a quick sprint than any sustained attack as Jimmy Neesham’s calculating cutters picked up career-best figures of five for 31. It was his best showing in professional cricket, a sweet comeback for a man who considered giving up the game 18 months ago.
Diligent support from the two New Zealand quicks Trent Boult and Lachie Ferguson, the latter claiming four for 37, meant that Afghanistan’s batting line-up once again proved the weak link in a side with such promise. Aftab Alam provided hope in the reply, as he trapped Martin Guptill lbw first ball and picked up the wickets of both Colin Munro (22) and then Ross Taylor.
However, the absence of Rashid Khan, who suffered a blow to the head while batting which prevented him from taking any further part, and an 89-run partnership between Kane Williamson (79) and Taylor (48) ensured New Zealand reached their target with 17.5 overs left.
New Zealand were evidently wary of what Afghanistan’s bowlers could produce, however, as instead of racing after the total as they had done in their opening drubbing of Sri Lanka, they opted for a more cautious approach to secure the win.
The faster they come, the faster they go was a mantra instead embraced by Hazratullah in a swashbuckling 34 off 28 that included a six which crashed onto the roof of one of the surrounding pavilions. Soon, however, it was an expression more applicable to the fall of Afghan wickets as the men in blue collapsed from 66 without loss to 70 for 4 in the space of three overs.
Afghanistan, despite their flair, have a batting unit yet truly to weather the demands of 50-over cricket at this level. Of their 27 matches against teams competing in this World Cup, they have batted out their allotted overs just seven times. Hashmatullah Shahidi looked like a man intent on changing that; his battling 59 off 99 might not have dazzled but ensured there was something for Afghanistan to defend.
Afghanistan are not ones to deny their followers a spectacle, certainly. In the ball which followed Rashid’s exit, Aftab, batting at No 10, strutted to the crease unflustered by facing Ferguson, one of the world’s fastest bowlers. Ferguson bounded in and Aftab cleared his front leg before swatting a near-90mph delivery to the cover boundary.
Small towns with small grounds and luscious green surrounds is one of the beautiful sights of World Cup cricket. The fixture card advertising a clash between the two contrasting ends of the table is not normally the most sought-after ticket. You wouldn’t, however, have known it for the excited hum which had enveloped Taunton centre, with the steady stream of punters filing down from the station providing the air of anticipation this tournament has so dearly sought. For a World Cup yet to truly capture the imagination of the wider country, this regional outpost was abuzz and the cricket, one-sided as it was, provided entertainment enough for the enthusiastic crowd to heartily embrace.