Defending Champions Australia made an assured start to their 2019 Cricket World Cup campaign with an assured victory against Afghanistan at the County Ground in Bristol.
After bowling out Afghanistan for 207 in 38.2 overs, Australia sailed to victory with a smart and sensible run chase.
Afghanistan gave a good account of themselves with their dogged determination and fight. They showed signs that they could beat any team at this Cricket World Cup on their day.
At the beginning of the innings, the Afghans were startled by the pace of Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins. If the ball is swinging and the conditions are conducive, Starc looks like one of the best bowlers in the world.
In the third ball of the innings, the left-arm speedster, bowling over the wicket, crafted a beautiful inswinging Yorker, which proved lethal for Mohammed Shahzad.
The Afghan keeper was caught flat-footed on his crease, and ball sent the off-stump careering over. With the score at 0-1, it was a catastrophic start for Afghanistan.
In the second over, left-hander Hazratullah Zazai slashed wildly with little footwork to ball going across him, which was safely taken by keeper Alex Carey.
Afghanistan’s number 3 and 4 batsmen, Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi, fought back for the next twelve overs with a fifty partnership, much to the annoyance of Australia’s bowlers.
Hashmatullah carelessly walked out of his crease to a ball by Zampa and was duly stumped by Carey, departing on 18 off 34 balls.
Rahmat was looking in good touch with his 43, but he aggressively drove the ball into the safe hands of Steve Smith at short-extra cover.
Smith then produced another inspired piece of fielding, the following over, to run out Mohammed Nabi (7 runs from 22 balls). Smith dived to his left, gathered the ball, got to his feet, threw the ball to the keeper Carey who completed the run out. All within the space of three seconds!
This left the underdogs on 77-5 and it looked like they had a mountain to climb to find a way back into this match.
But Afghanistan dug in deep and fought back once more. Najibullah Zadran and captain Gulbadin Naib put on the partnership of the innings – 83 runs from 77 balls.
This entertained the crowd in attendance, particularly the passionate Afghan fans at cow corner.
Najibullah in particular impressed with some delightful stroke play. He frustrated the in-form Adam Zampa with an array of reverse sweeps which took away the danger of his line which was targeting the stumps.
Throughout the innings, Afghanistan’s batsmen showed intent to score runs, be positive and not be bullied into a surrender.
To claw back the momentum, Australia turned to pitching it short. And it worked. First the Gulbadin-Najibullah partnership was broken, largely thanks to a careless shot by the Afghan captain.
Najibullah followed in similar fashion. Both were caught behind by Carey after spurning the ball in the air from the bowling of Marcus Stoinis.
Australia used a plethora of short balls to intimidate Afghanistan, particularly the tail. The plan was to get them onto the back foot, stifle their run scoring and then take wickets by catching them on the crease.
Nevertheless, this did not deter Rashid Khan, who scored a quick-fire 27 from 11 balls. This further excited the crowd and showed why he is one of the most exciting players in World Cricket at the moment.
Afghanistan added another 41 runs from 20 balls for the final two wickets. In difficult conditions and against one of the best bowling attacks, they showed some real grit and fight.
Australia were not as polished with the ball and in the field as we would usually expect. Their bowling performance included wides, no-balls, and more than a few misfields.
Adam Zampa was shrewd with his variations and attacking bowling. He finished with 3 wickets for 60 runs.
Finch and Warner made an accomplished start for Australia, with a partnership of 96. Finch played attractive attacking strokes which you would expect from an Aussie opener, and scored efficiently at a strike rate of over almost 135.
Man of the Match David Warner, at the other end gave Finch the freedom to play. He constructed a very mature and selfless innings, scoring at a steady strike rate of between 70 and 80.
His goal was to anchor the ship for a safe journey. It was also no doubt about redemption and silencing critics. His unbeaten 89 from 114 balls certainly went some way to doing that.
In the 17th over, Aaron Finch tried to over hit a slower ball, which was pitched wide outside the off-stump, from captain Gulbadin into the grateful hands of Mujeeb Ur Rahman at extra cover. This brought to an end an impressive innings of 66 funs from 49 balls.
Khawaja played in the same measured manner as Warner. However, he was trapped lbw by the wiley leg-spinner Rashid Khan, with a ball that turned the other way.
Eventually it was the experienced pair of David Warner and Steve Smith who saw Australia home. Although Smith was out on the penultimate ball of the innings, an off-side heave on his first ball by Glen Maxwell sealed the deal for the Aussies.
Afghanistan will be tough to beat for any team at this World Cup. Underestimate them at your peril. It is highly likely that they will score at least one upset in this campaign. The future looks bright for this young cricketing nation.
One would have to be brave to bet against Australia reaching the final. They have a deep squad, which possesses the experience of winning competitions and the ruthlessness to win when it matters.
Images courtesy of the ICC Cricket World Cup Twitter account