Match Analysis

Mature Afghanistan leave with immense pride after statement World Cup campaign

Azmatullah Omarzai the latest talent to shine as new generation come to the fore

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
10-Nov-2023 • 14 hrs ago
They came. They saw. They even conquered. Just not the last of those on Friday.
Afghanistan leave the 2023 World Cup before the knockout matches, but as the team of the tournament for some. They are all but guaranteed a sixth-place finish - and with that, a spot at the 2025 Champions Trophy - and have presented a mature style of play that suggests they will be serious contenders in the tournaments to come.
In the immediate aftermath, Afghanistan will look at their batting against Bangladesh, and the dropped catches - against New Zealand, and especially off Glenn Maxwell in the Australia game when he was put down on 33 before making a match-winning double-hundred - as massive missed opportunities. But when they take the wide view, they should reflect on it with immense pride at a statement campaign, with collective and individual performances to build on.
Against South Africa in Ahmedabad, the loudest came from Azmatullah Omarzai, the allrounder who ended three short of becoming the second Afghan batter to score a World Cup century, and finished as their second-highest run-scorer with the highest average. As far as breakout World Cup performances go, Omarzai has definitely had one.
He had only had 14 ODIs to his name before this World Cup, and had never batted at No. 5 for the national team. In Omarzai's first outing, he scored 62 against India in Delhi, where Afghanistan unveiled the batting blueprint they would use for the rest of the tournament. He followed up with two more unbeaten half-centuries - against Sri Lanka and South Africa - and picked up seven wickets along the way too. From what we've seen of Omarzai so far, he is a clean ball-striker and a strong off-side player, who can pounce on anything too wide.
"I've always been amazed at how he can time the ball," Jonathan Trott, Afghanistan's coach, said of Omarzai at the post-match press conference. "We saw the other night - he hit Mitchell Starc over his head, or over mid-off even, for six. It was the same thing today, over mid-off. Very rarely do you see players who are able to time the ball, and to hear the sound the ball makes when it comes off his bat..."
Omarzai hit three fours through the covers on Friday, but his shot of the day was the six he sent back over Aiden Markram's head. Even through the glass of the press box - and perhaps because the stadium was less than a tenth full - there was an audible thwack and a chorus of oooohs and aaahs, all agreeing with Trott's sentiment.
"He is a very special talent," he said. "I'm anxious to watch the IPL auction when his name comes up."
Apart from his obvious talent, the other reason to be heartened by Omarzai's performance is what it represents for Afghanistan's depth. Omarzai is part of the next generation of Afghan players, the ones that have come after the pioneers like Mohammad Nabi and Hashmatullah Shahidi. Omarzai was part of the Afghanistan Under-19 team that played at the 2018 age-group World Cup and reached the semi-final, and also included Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran, Ikram Alikhil, Naveen-ul-Haq and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
All of them had an impact of some sort at this tournament, and have created a pipeline of Afghan talent for the selectors to draw from which Trott hopes will continue.
"The next progression is to have more of a squad with regards to more players," he said. "For the first time, we've really been able to select a side depending on the conditions, whereas before we'd have 11, and if we had one injury [it would be a problem]. Now you're seeing the emergence of the players. There's certainly a bigger pool than the past to be able to select from."
"The joy on their faces [on] beating Pakistan for the first time - that makes everything worthwhile. That's really a moment I won't forget, along with a lot of the other guys"
Afghanistan coach Jonathan Trott
At this World Cup, Afghanistan were able to be adaptable when it came to their batting - they brought in Omarzai for Najibullah Zadran early on - and more so in their bowling. They started out by playing two frontline seamers in Naveen and Fazalhaq Farooqi, and when they thought conditions would allow, switched Farooqi out for a fourth spinner in Noor Ahmad, who is part of the youngest generation of talent. Noor played in the 2022 Under-19 World Cup side, and has already had experience in big leagues like the BBL, PSL, CPL and IPL.
Which brings us to the department which Trott said Afghanistan are "normally" expected to be strongest in: spin. Rashid Khan, who had started slowly amid many questions of whether he would be able to translate his T20 form to ODIs, finished as Afghanistan's leading wicket-taker. Afghanistan's spinners collectively took 32 wickets at this World Cup, the most of any group of slow bowlers so far. New Zealand and India, with 27, are next.
Their spinners also played a significant role in helping Afghanistan control the middle overs. Between overs 11 and 40, Afghanistan conceded at the second lowest run rate in the tournament: 4.97 to the over. Only India, at 4.47, are better.
These are all numbers that Afghanistan will look at - and they will look at them, because we have already seen that Trott is a meticulous planner - and recognise them as the building blocks for a team that can do more. They will also remember that they completed their highest successful chase in ODIs when they beat against Pakistan, and then hunted down targets clinically against Sri Lanka and Netherlands. They showed "we can win in various ways", as Trott said.
But mostly they will look back on this campaign as a capsule in time where they enjoyed some of the best moments of their careers, and showed the world a side of their country that is not often seen: a happy, united and triumphant country - at least at this World Cup - and a group of players who had the time of their lives.
"They're a bunch of guys very proud of representing their side. I enjoy that," Trott said. "When you're proud of who you are and what you're representing with regards to the challenges - perhaps personal challenges in the past - to be able to become a cricket player, and put that [challenges] to a side for a common goal [is great].
"There have been times - there's been tough testing times for sure - but these four wins in this World Cup, the joy on their faces [on] beating Pakistan for the first time - that makes everything worthwhile. That's really a moment I won't forget, along with a lot of the other guys as well."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket