Pakistan brace for Afghan spin test

Published June 29, 2019
Shaheen Shah Afridi attends a training session at Headingley in Leeds, northern England ahead of the World Cup match against Afghanistan. — AFP/File
Shaheen Shah Afridi attends a training session at Headingley in Leeds, northern England ahead of the World Cup match against Afghanistan. — AFP/File

LEEDS: Pakistan are still resonating with emotion after reviving their World Cup aspirations with back-to-back victories. A little over a week ago, some of the players didn’t want to leave their hotel rooms out of fear of a backlash that incessantly followed them after the India defeat.

But two big wins on, few players from the same lot strutted into Birmingham New Street Station on Thursday, exchanged handshakes with fans before boarding the train with their respective families to Leeds, the venue of Friday’s match against Afghanistan

Of course, their progress to the semi-final will still be dictated by games not involving them, but Pakistan can claim to have changed their vibrant style of play once again heading into the easier (on paper) of their must-win contests.

The left-arm quicks are menacing again, Shadab Khan can draw an error even from the unflappable Kane Williamson, Babar Azam finishes off tough chases and Haris Sohail is the middle-order power-unit he was supposed to have been four years ago.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan are doing the other Pakistan things: Changing captains, dropping an in-form player for a senior player — Najibullah Zadran for Asghar Afghan — and curiously sending home players for disciplinary reasons. Barring a close game against India, they’ve largely spluttered through a campaign that promised so much following that win over Pakistan in the warm-up.

They still have two games to redeem themselves and the sight of Pakistan, with tetchy diplomatic and cricketing recent history between the two boards, should light a fire under them.

Pakistan have spared no effort in their preparations to take on Afghanistan’s spinners in Saturday’s clash that could be crucial to their hopes of making the semi-finals, Haris said on the eve of the contest.

Back-to-back wins against South Africa and New Zealand have given the former champions a chance of making the knockouts but they must beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh in their final two games and hope other results go their way to advance.

Haris, who was dropped after their opening defeat by West Indies but returned to the side scoring 89 and 68 in the last two matches, said Pakistan had to keep a close eye on spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman who could hurt their chances.

“We’ve kept it very simple. We’re going from match to match. They have quality spinners and we’ve seen a lot of videos and we’ve worked from them. And hopefully we’ll see a good match,” Haris told reporters.

Haris scored only one run when Pakistan lost their warm-up match to Afghanistan last month, but the 30-year-old said he had no doubts about his ability on the big stage.

“From the last series against Australia I have been playing very well, and this time they’ve given me the different role... bat at four or five,” Haris added. “I’m going with my plan and we have to assess the situation and I will play accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Afghanistan skipper Gulbadin Naib said his team will fancy their chances on a Headingley wicket that could assist his spinners.

Afghanistan are looking to finish on a high after losing all their seven games.

“If you look at similar conditions, it is certainly in our favour, it’s good for our spinners,” he said. “Haris played really well in the last two games and Babar Azam too. Rashid is a different spinner, a different bowler to other spinners. So it’s difficult to pick him.”

The last time these two teams played, in a spicy ODI at the Asia Cup, three players found themselves in violation of the code of conduct and Shoaib Malik emerged as a match winner in a tense three-wicket win. A lot has changed since.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2019

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