India, favourites at this World Cup, had faced little challenge in the tournament till now. Australia came relatively close to stretching the men in blue, but not close enough. At Southampton on Saturday, Afghanistan, everyone's favourite underdog, stretched India to the last over.
Batting first, India struggled against the Afghanistan spin-quartet of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Rahmat Shah. The Indian top order had been firing every game, giving the middle order little to do. Rohit Sharma fell early and KL Rahul departed after a sluggish 30. The middle order, with the onus on it to dig India out of trouble, took its time on a slow pitch. Vijay Shankar's 29 off 41 and MS Dhoni's 28 off 52 added to the total, but slowed down the Indian innings.
In difficult conditions and against a formidable spin attack, Virat Kohli led India to this shrill win. His patient but brisk 67 off 63 carried India through the middle overs. Keda Jadhav's 52 of 68 toward the end helped India reach 224.
Afghanistan, in reply, started out cautiously and lingered on at slow pace toward the meager total. The game was set to become a close affair. Nabi's fifty guided Afghanistan agonisingly close to finish line. With 16 needed from the last over, Nabi struck a four off the first ball from Mohammad Shami. But the Indian pacer followed up brilliantly, taking a hat-trick and helping India to an 11-run win.
Here are the talking points from the game:
The middle order is tested
The concerns about a number 4 and a shaky middle order had been somewhat allayed at the beginning of this World Cup, largely because the opening duo extraordinaire, Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma. The two were in stellar form and the middle order was chipping in as and when required. But Dhawan's injury has forced India to play Rahul as an opener, which is fine as it is his favoured position to bat in. But it has left the Indian middle order a bit sluggish. Dhoni has been in consistent and often takes a bit of time to get going. Jadhav hasn't really had much time on the crease. And Hardik Pandya has been floating around that middle order like a ghost, brought in on demand to hit big. There isn't a solid figure there who could take charge if the openers fail to do so.
Against Afghanistan, this weakness was exposed when Sharma and Rahul both failed to play a decisive role. It was Kohli and later Jadhav who kept the scoreboard ticking. But maybe it is a good time to think about putting in Rishabh Pant in that rusty middle order to liven it up. Pant is flexible and can bat at any given position. On his day he can be devastating and is the ideal batter to come in at point when runs are needed fast.
Kohli gets it done, again
While Sharma has attracted most of the high praise in the ongoing World Cup for his two centuries and one fifty, Kohli has played the unlikely role of the subdued worker. His last three scores read 82, 77 and 67. While he hasn't yet hit a big century and hasn't really exploded, so to speak, Kohli has been leading from the front as a captain. He has played patient, mature knocks, and as always kept the scoreboard ticking with excellent running between the wickets. He has guided the team through the middle overs and done so without much fuss.
One would expect Kohli to stand in the spotlight, but he has been working at the margins of attention. One has to expect that a massive innings from his is on the way; the captain must be itching to score a hundred. But his fifties so far have helped India find a way through difficult periods of play. It also speaks volumes about his technique that he has played well in all conditions.
Afghanistan spinners do the trick
India had not lost a single wicket to spin in the World Cup thus far, but on Saturday they lost five. Afghanistan spinners, led by Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi choked out the top and middle order on a slow pitch. Rahul, Sharma, Kohli, Shankar and Dhoni, all got out to spin.
After the game Kohli said it had become apparent soon that it was near-impossible to play cross batted on the slow pitch that aided spinners. He played strictly with a straight bad and was rewarded.
Indian pacers come good
With a conservative total defend, Indian pacers took up the initiative to put Afghanistan on the backfoot during the chase. Mohammad Shami, in for the injured Bhuvnaeshwar Kumar, struck early and bowled Hazratulla Zazai in the seventh over. Afghnistan captain Galbadin Naib followed Zazai to the dressing room soon when Pandya caught him by surprise with a short one. Jasprit Bumrah once again showed why he is considered the best pace bowler in ODIs. He got rid of both Rahmat Shah and Hasmatullah Shahidi in a single over, crippling the Afghani chase. Shah top edged a short one and was caught by Chahal at fine leg, while Sahidi was caught and bowled when he failed to adjust to a short of length ball.
Shami scalped four, while Bumrah, adjudged the player of the match, took two and gave away only 39 runs from his 10 overs. Pandya too chipped in effectively, picking up two wickets for 51 runs. A fine display from the pace attack on a slow pitch shows how far Indian pacers have come.
Hat-trick hero Shami
Shami replaced an injured Bhuvneshar Kumar and delivered instantaneously. Even a slow pitch which did not have much for pacers, Shami showed he can be dangerously accurate.
Shami had already bowled out Zazai early. With 16 required from the last over for a historic upset and memorable win for Afghanistan, Kohli handed the ball to Shami. First ball in, Nabi, playing on 48, slapped it straight to four. India were now under a bit of pressure, 12 needed from five. Shami goes full the second ball, Nabi plays it to midwicket but refuses to take the single. Third ball, yorker, Nabi digs it out to Pandya on long on and departs after a fighting fifty. Fourth ball, just short of yorker length, slipped in takes out Aftab Alam's stumps. Fourth ball, on a hat-trick, last wicket, yorker this time and kisses Mujeeb's leg stump and it's all over.
Shami became only the second Indian bowler after Chetan Sharma in 1987 to take a hat-trick at the World Cup. He ended up with figures of 4/40 and helped India to their 50th win at World Cups.