New Zealand come out on top

An early World Cup exit for the cricketing public’s favourite underdogs seems inevitable after Afghanistan’s struggles against pace bowling on English pitches returned at Taunton in a third consecutive defeat from as many matches.

Afghanistan were bowled out for 207 in their opening match against defending champions Australia with both of their openers failing to score. Against Sri Lanka in a rain-shortened game they scored 152 after being set 187. Then at Taunton they succumbed for 172 all out against New Zealand after reaching 66 without loss. New Zealand reached their target with seven wickets and 17.5 overs to spare.

Heavy rain drenched Taunton on the eve of the match and the weather on the morning of the day-night match was cold, wet and windy, reminding New Zealanders of the Basin Reserve in Wellington when the notorious southerly wind howls.

Fortunately for the teams and the spectators at one of the more picturesque English grounds, where international rivals Ian Botham and Viv Richards combined to such devastating effect in domestic cricket a generation ago, the wind relented and the sun shone apart from two brief rain breaks.

In response, after New Zealand skipper Kane Williamson had won the toss and predictably opted to field, Afghanistan initially displayed the enterprise and fighting spirit which has propelled a team who gestated in Pakistan refugee camps to the world’s premier one-day tournament.

Afghanistan selected Noor Ali Zadran, one of only four players to hit a century in each innings in his First Class debut, in place of his nephew Mujeeb Ur Rahman to open the batting with the ebullient Hazratullah Zazai.

Hazratullah glided the third delivery from Matt Henry’s opening over to the fine-leg boundary, slashed the fourth over Ross Taylor’s outstretched hand at slip and slogged the fifth across the line for a third consecutive four.

Noor, altogether more orthodox, unfurled sumptuous drives to the boundary off Henry and Trent Boult and flicked the latter delightfully through midwicket for another four. Hazratullah survived difficult chances on 16 and 18 to reach 34 when he was caught off Jimmy Neesham for 34 with the total on 66.

Noor followed for 31 without addition to the score. Thereafter the Afghanistan middle order fell away with a series off ill-judged shots before Hashmatullah Shahidi came to their rescue with 59, including nine boundaries.

Afghanistan’s problems at the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019, after making their debut four years ago in Australia and New Zealand, have been personified by the mixed fortunes of Rashid Khan, their outstanding player in recent seasons.

Rashid’s quickish leg-spinners and googlies, agile fielding and effective batting down the order have made him a potent force with Afghanistan and in franchise T20 cricket, and last year he became his country’s first Indian Premier League millionaire.

At this year’s tournament Rashid struck 27 against Australia but his eight overs cost 52 runs, he took only one wicket and looked frustrated by the efforts of his fielders. He bounced back with two for 17 against Sri Lanka but scored just two.

Against New Zealand, Rashid was dismissed without scoring from the fourth ball of his innings when Lockie Ferguson, who has brought an extra dimension to the New Zealand attack with his pace and control as the first change, fired a short delivery at the Afghanistan batsman. Rashid took a half step forward, was hit on the helmet and the ball fell on to the stumps as he reeled from the impact. The player did not take the field for the New Zealand innings after he complained of feeling unwell and a team spokesman said he had undergone a medical examination and would be assessed again on Sunday.

Afghanistan will not play another game for seven days when they meet South Africa who have also lost their first three matches.

Against a team led by Kagiso Rabada, Afghanistan know they will be in for another stern examination from the fast bowlers in Cardiff.

After the match Afghanistan skipper Gulbadin Naib said: “Morale is still high for us. We just need one good match and hopefully we can do that. We need some momentum – our start on the batting was a good thing. The start of our bowling was also good. Aftab Alam and Hamid Hassan did well.

“We have played three games and we’re trying to put our best on the ground. Every player is trying to do his best but it’s tough cricket, tough teams. You don’t get many chances.”

New Zealand’s Kane Williamson said: “We know how talented Afghanistan are and I know it first-hand from guys I’ve played with. They’re very savvy, very cagey in how they operate and so it was a really good performance from us.

“Those two guys [Ferguson and Neesham] have been crucial in very different roles for us. We’ve seen examples of both thriving in last three games.

“When Jimmy is bowling well, he can get good pace out of the surface. They complement each other along with the other bowlers in the attack.”

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