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Afghanistan primed to take down an ex-champion at World Cup

June 3, 2019
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Afghanistan's captain Gulbadin Naib celebrates taking the wicket of Australia's captain Aaron Finch during the Cricket World Cup match between Afghanistan and Australia at Bristol County Ground in Bristol, England, Saturday, June 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

It’s just ... cricket.

At least, that’s how Afghanistan’s captain at the Cricket World Cup would like to edit the old expression.

Gulbadin Naib wants cricket observers to pay attention to what his Afghan players do on the field, preferring the focus to be on the world-class skill of players like Rashid Khan rather than the constant reflections on the war and the difficulties it presented for developing a far-flung team.

“Definitely,” Naib, who spent time in his childhood living as a refugee in Pakistan, said when asked if the team’s performances should be the entire focus of attention. “If you look at the last five or six years, we improved very well and not only in cricket, all over in Afghanistan.

“The team has changed now, so it’s not like in 2015 where we are — everything is changed.”

Naib may just get his wish on Tuesday, when Afghanistan takes on 1996 World Cup winner Sri Lanka in what will be the second match of the tournament for both teams.

The game in Cardiff represents a genuine chance for the Afghans to add a second win at one-day cricket’s marquee tournament to their landmark, one-wicket victory over Scotland in 2015.

Both teams are coming off lopsided losses, although Afghanistan was more competitive against five-time champion Australia in a seven-wicket loss than Sri Lanka was in a crushing 10-wicket defeat to 2015 runner-up New Zealand.

“I saw the Sri Lankans play on TV, and they lost a few games in the last two years and they’re struggling in one-day matches,” Naib told a news conference Monday. “Definitely we can beat them.

“We can try to score big — if we (bat) 50 overs, maybe difficult for them.”

Naib knows that taking down a full test member of the ICC — and a former world champion and three-time finalist at that — would signal a major shift in the perception of his team.

Afghanistan’s tournament started in almost the worst way possible in Bristol last Sunday when Australian paceman Mitch Starc bowled Mohammad Shahzad off the third ball before a run was scored. Australia vice-captain Pat Cummins took a wicket in the next over and Afghanistan was suddenly 5-2, with both openers out for ducks.

But they hung in and eventually posted 207 runs, with Najibullah Zadran scoring a half-century and Rahmat Shah scoring 43. They took three wickets, including Australia captain Aaron Finch and former captain Steve Smith, before the game ended.

Sri Lanka’s opening game started badly and kept getting worse in Cardiff. There was no rearguard rally. Captain Dimuth Karunaratne was the only batsman to resist the New Zealand attack, carrying his bat for 52 in a total of 136. The Sri Lankan bowling attack didn’t take a wicket as the Kiwis raced to victory in 16 overs.

If sequences count for anything, Afghanistan is due a win — its record in completed games so far in 2019 is win-loss-win-loss-win-loss.

It also has recent form in a tournament situation, with wins over Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and a dramatic tie against India at the Asian Cup last September highlighting how competitive Afghanistan can be.

That followed two wins over the West Indies in last year’s qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe that secured Afghanistan’s spot at the narrowed-down, 10-team 2019 edition of the World Cup. More seasoned international teams such as Zimbabwe, Ireland and Scotland didn’t make the cut.

Some valuable lessons in a loss to defending champion Australia, and a win over Pakistan in a warmup game last week in Bristol, have Naib feeling more confident.

“If you look at the last game against Australia, we did well a lot of things there,” Naib said. “We have good growth now.

“I’m seeing my team in a good level, so just need one good match in the start of the tournament so we take that momentum.”

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