If the current cricket World Cup has demonstrated something, it is that I am absolutely terrible at predicting outcomes. You can bet against me and win each time. For yesterday’s games, I predicted that both Sri Lanka and South Africa would have easy wins over Afghanistan and India respectively and what happens? Afghanistan almost pulled off a historic victory and India simply hammered South Africa, getting them out for 177 in just 40.2 overs after scoring 307/7. And let’s not even talk about my predicted dark horse team Pakistan struggling to avoid missing qualifying for the quarterfinals.
The Afghanistan-Sri Lanka game was a nail-biter until almost the very end. Batting first, Afghanistan lost their first two wickets for just 40 runs after 9.4 overs but a spirited stand of 88 off 105 balls by Asghar Stanikzai and Samilullah Shenwari raised hopes that they could reach a total close to 300 and give Sri Lanka a tough time. But then there was a minor collapse of the middle order batsmen leaving them at 175 for 6 after 38.1 overs. Afsar Zazai and Mirwais Ashraf staged a minor recovery but the team could only put on 57 runs for the last four wickets and were finally all out for 232, just two balls shy of their fifty over quota.
Afghanistan got off to a terrific start when Sri Lanka batted, with Dawlat Zadran getting Lahiru Thirimanne out lbw for zero with the very first ball of the innings and Shapoor Zadran then getting Tillakaratne Dilshan also out for zero off the very first ball that he faced. Then Sri Lanka’s highest scoring batsman Kumar Sangakkara was out for just 7, leaving Sri Lanka reeling at 18/3, and a little later they were 51/4, bringing memories of Pakistan’s opening debacle from just the day before.
But then that stylish veteran Mahela Jayawardane scored a beautiful century and, aided by a dogged innings of 44 from captain Angelo Mathews, took Sri Lanka to 177 and Sri Lanka seemed to be cruising towards a win before they both got dismissed within the space of a single run and Afghanistan was very much back in the game. But after a quiet period of cautious play when the required run rate seemed to be slipping out of reach, Thisara Perera, with some big hitting in his unbeaten 47, took Sri Lanka safely home with 10 balls to spare. But that final score is deceiving in that it does not show how really close the game was.
Afghanistan played well in all three areas of the game. Their one failure was in not scoring enough runs at the end of their innings. In their last 15 overs, they scored at only 4.2 runs per over when usually teams are aiming for around twice that rate. This left their bowlers with too low a target to defend and despite their very spirited effort, they just could not do it.
As for Sri Lanka, their fielding this time was improved but they should be a little worried about their bowling attack. They seem to lack a truly dangerous bowler and seem to be unable to close the deal when they have their opponents on the ropes. They also bowled 16 wides, which shows a lack of control. On the plus side, their middle order batting which has seemed fragile this time showed resilience and their main strike bowler Lasith Malinga, the person they look to during the ‘death overs’ (as the last ten overs over of an innings in one day games are called) when you are trying to stop batsmen from plundering runs, seemed to not be showing any effects of the foot surgery for that kept him out of cricket for many months until just before this tournament.
If Sri Lanka had lost this game, they would have had a tougher time making it to the quarterfinals than the other two 0-2 teams Pakistan and England, since they would then have had to win at least three of their next four games against Australia, England, Bangladesh and Scotland.
But all in all it was a great performance from Afghanistan and along with Ireland’s victory over the West Indies (and to a lesser extent Scotland’s performance against New Zealand) served notice on all those who disparagingly refer to these teams as ‘minnows’ (presumably because they serve as fodder for the big fish) that they are no easy prey. These two nations have produced the most exciting games so far in the tournament and showed that they deserve to be here.
Today sees England play Scotland and the conventional wisdom says that England should win but given what has been happening, it would be foolish for England to be too confident of their chances.