Ireland have not had the better of Afghanistan in recent battles, and will have a point to prove when they take on the Asghar Stanikzai-led side in the first of three Twenty20 Internationals at the Bready Cricket Club on Monday. It was Afghanistan who broke Ireland's dream of playing the 2019 World Cup in England by defeating them in the Super Sixes finale of the World Cup Qualifiers in Zimbabwe. The two teams have produced some fantastic matches and have developed quite a serious rivalry, especially after being awarded Full Member status by the ICC in June 2017. Ireland and Afghanistan have already made their Test debut, against Pakistan and India respectively. Yes, they were no match to the two stalwarts, but their journey to the Test arena still needs to be applauded. Afghanistan have a 7-3 head-to-head record against Ireland, and have won the last five 20-over bout between the two sides. The last time these two sides met in this format was in March 2017 where Afghanistan swept the three-game series in Noida. In the last one year, Stanikzai's men have managed to leapfrog Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to No. 8 in the T20I rankings, while Ireland are in 17th place.
Afghanistan's biggest strength are their spinners - Rashid Khan, the top-ranked T20I bowler, and 17-year-old Mujeeb Ur Rahman. However, Gary Wilson, who took over the captaincy from William Porterfield in June, said they won't be as threatening as they are in sub-continent. “If the wicket isn’t spinning as much, obviously (it’ll be easier against them). We hope it doesn’t,” he said. “Playing them in Sharjah or Noida, where the ball is spinning pretty excessively in both directions, it becomes quite difficult. “They’re still good bowlers, though, whether it spins or not. Rashid is the No.1 T20I bowler in the world, he doesn’t have to rely on spin for that. He plays in the BBL, the T20 Blast in England, and those are two places where it’s not necessary to spin the ball. He’s obviously a fine bowler. The good thing is, we’ve had a look at him, and played against him a lot.” Apart from having the flamboyance of Mohammad Shahzad in the batting department, Afghanistan also have the likes of Mohammad Nabi, Samiullah Shenwari and Stanikzai who are equally dangerous. They also come into this tour having hammered Bangladesh 3-0 in their most recent T20I series.
Meanwhile, Ireland will be delighted with the return of Boyd Rankin from injury. Youngsters like Joshua Little and David Delany have been called up to the squad, but the onus will be on the likes of William Porterfield, Kevin O Brien, Paul Stirling and George Dockrell to put up a strong fight against Afghanistan. In their most recent outing, Ireland lost both T20Is that they played against India in June. “They (Afghanistan) are obviously a good side, but I did say at the time of the India (series) that this would be a better gauge of where we’re at,” said Wilson. “Made a couple of changes in the squad, and it’s good to see people like David Delany and Josh Little get their opportunity. We feel like we’ve selected a squad that, looking down the line to the qualifiers, we’re trying to identify guys (for that).
“It’s obviously not going to be the 14 that are here – it’ll be 15, 16, 17 players that we think are going to be able to take us forward. We want to give the guys we believe are going to (help us) qualify for that 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia the most opportunity, and gain exposure at this level.” Three T20 games at Bready will be followed by three One-Day Internationals in Belfast. The T20 World Cup is still far away, but a victory against Afghanistan will do Ireland's confidence a lot of good.
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First Published: August 20, 2018, 9:43 PM IST