Spin it to win it – Set template for Afghanistan aids T20I success

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In 2019, when it was time for the 50-over World Cup, the spotlight was on the bigger teams and not specifically on Afghanistan who were playing only their second World Cup in that format. It turned out to be forgettable few matches for the side as they lost all nine games through the group phase.

However, if and when the T20 World Cup, which is scheduled to be hosted by Australia this year, begins, the eyes will be on the Afghanistan team as they are known as an exciting T20I outfit or at the very least an exhilarating bowling attack. There is no need to introduce Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi given their performances for various franchises but we will try to delve into the finer details of the trio and also the players who make up the bowling attack.

As a team, Afghanistan has developed rapidly due to these game-changing spin bowlers and that is evident in terms of the results. Although the emerging nation has usually played the weaker teams, one can’t brush away Afghanistan’s 3-0 clean sweep against Bangladesh in 2018 or the 2-1 win over West Indies in Dehradun last year.

Also Read: Rashid Khan: Jack of all trades, master of some?

Ever since Mujeeb Ur Rahman made his T20I debut, Afghanistan has used a set template to use their bowlers. While the team has been guilty of being rigid with the strategy, it has also reaped them huge dividends until now. While we would all know that Mujeeb operates during the powerplay, the usage of Rashid Khan is quite different when compared to the T20 franchises that he represents. Asghar Afghan, the team’s captain tends to hold the ace bowler for the second half of an inning quite often. The reason for this tactic is the fact that Afghanistan doesn’t have many established pacers who could bowl the death overs.

The bowling position of Afghanistan’s various players in the games that Mujeeb Ur Rahman has featured in also helps us how there is a fixed pattern to the team’s decision making. The table below illustrates how often the bowlers from the country are called upon during various stages in a T20I game.

Bowling Position Rashid Khan Mujeeb Ur Rahman Mohammad Nabi
1 17 times
2 2 times 1 time
3 5 times
4 1 time 6 times
5 12 times 4 times
6 6 times 2 times

 

The above table shows how Rashid Khan is almost always held back to make sure that the opposition is forced into taking him on during the final few overs. The usage of both Rashid and Nabi as the 6th bowler also reveals how Afghanistan prefer to play at least six bowling options. Apart from the three spinners, the team tends to play two seam-bowling all-rounders in the form of Gulbadin Naib and Karim Janat. The last piece in the jigsaw puzzle would be either Naveen Ul Haq, an intelligent T20 seamer with a bag of tricks or a veteran in the form of Shapoor Zadran.

The common belief is that spinners can’t bowl the last four overs of a T20I match but the quality of Rashid Khan gives Afghanistan the luxury to do so. The leg-spinner’s phase-wise splits in the 19 games that Mujeeb has featured in also press home this point.

Phase Overs Runs conceded Wickets Economy Rate Strike Rate
Powerplay (0-6 overs)
Middle-overs (7-16 overs) 50 286 27 5.72 11.12
Death overs (17-20) 23 160 13 6.96 10.62

 

The mystery man, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, on the other hand, is an expert when it comes to the powerplay overs. Until now, the 19-year-old has picked up 18 wickets during the powerplay overs in his 19-match T20I career. Here are his overall phase-wise splits in International T20 matches.

Phase Overs Runs conceded Wickets Economy Rate Strike Rate
Powerplay (0-6 overs) 56 352 18 6.28 18.67
Middle-overs (7-16 overs) 12 51 5 4.25 14.40
Death overs (17-20) 4 40 2 10.00 12.00

 

Until now at least, Mujeeb hasn’t been great during the slog overs as he has conceded 10 runs per over. He could be better utilized during the middle-phase where he can build up a lot of dot balls.

Moving on, the veteran Mohammad Nabi who is a canny off-spinner has interestingly played a lesser part with the ball in recent times. One can even say it is quite a worrying trend that Nabi hasn’t picked up a wicket in 11 out of his the last 12 matches.

Phase Overs Runs conceded Wickets Economy Rate Strike Rate
Powerplay (0-6 overs) 8 40 2 5.00 24.00
Middle-overs (7-16 overs) 42 306 8 7.29 31.50
Death overs (17-20) 1 10 0 10.00

 

If this troika of spinners isn’t enough, Afghanistan have another quality leg-spinner in the form of Qais Ahmad as part of their reserves. Already a T20 globe-trotter of sorts, Qais impressed on his T20I debut against Ireland in February with a three-wicket haul. If either Mujeeb or Nabi doesn’t perform to expectation levels, Qais would be a luxurious option to bring into the line-up. Afghanistan could also tinker a bit and sacrifice some of the batting depth by bringing in Qais for someone like Gulbadin Naib.

It won’t be an overstatement to say that the young leg-spinner would be a first-choice player for many other teams. Just 19, Qais has already played in the BBL, CPL while also being picked for ‘The Hundred’ outfit Welsh Fire. Overall, in 51 T20Is, Qais has picked up 59 scalps at an economy rate of 7.27 which is really impressive.

Given we have seen in detail about the spinners, let us also now have a sneak-peek into Afghanistan’s seam-bowling options. As mentioned above, the incumbents currently are Gulbadin Naib, Karim Janat, Shapoor Zadran and Naveen Ul Haq.

Afghanistan T20I

Rashid Khan has emerged as the warhorse for Afghanistan in T20I cricket

While Karim Janat blitzed through the West Indies line-up with a five-wicket haul in the 2nd T20I in Lucknow last year, Naveen Ul Haq has been pretty impressive whenever he has got an opportunity. In just five T20Is, Naveen has already picked up 10 scalps with the youngster showing dollops of skill while foxing Brandon King with his slower deliveries in consecutive games. The 20-year-old even held his nerve pretty well against a world-class player like Keiron Pollard on the way to picking up a three-wicket haul in the 3rd and final T20I last year. Along with Rashid Khan, Naveen might have to come up with the goods during the pivotal death overs.

It might seem unlikely but given the T20I World Cup is scheduled to be held in Australia, Afghanistan might spring a surprise by picking Hamid Hassan. Although Hamid announced his retirement from the ODI format before the 2019 World Cup itself, he did make himself available for the shortest format of the game.

In terms of results, Afghanistan has only lost four out of the 19 T20I matches that Mujeeb Ur Rahman has featured in. Here again, one can dive deep and find some connections to the template that Afghanistan employ. In ODI cricket, the side tries to mostly bat first and post anything around 250 to let their bowlers defend the total. It is not too different in T20Is too as Afghanistan has shown a tendency to favour batting first.

Criteria Average totals
Afghanistan overall 158.42
Opposition overall 141.42
Afghanistan (Batting first) 169.92
Opposition (Batting first) 140.23
Afghanistan (Batting second) 133.50
Opposition (Batting second) 144.00

 

Criteria Results
Wins while defending more than 140 11
Losses while defending more than 140 1

In these 19 matches, Afghanistan has won the toss in 10 games and chosen to field first only on two occasions. Overall, the number 10 ranked T20I side has also only lost two out of the 15 matches where they have batted first. The above two tables show that Afghanistan performs much better with both bat and ball whenever they bat first.

Furthermore, Afghanistan has an impeccable record while defending totals above 140. With runs on the board, the spinners strangle the opposition batsmen quite easily.

It is natural for bowlers to do better when a good total is on the board but there is also a huge disparity in the performance of Mujeeb Ur Rahman depending upon whether Afghanistan bat or field first.

Toss Decision No of innings Wickets Economy Strike Rate
Batting first 13 21 5.72 runs per over 13.7
Fielding First 6 4 7.00 runs per over 36.0

 

All said and done, Afghanistan has some fantastic spin bowlers at their disposal. The side is perhaps comparable to teams like Chennai Super Kings, Guyana Amazon Warriors and also the Indian Women’s team. All these sides have been led by quality leg-spinners like Imran Tahir (for both CSK and GAW) or Poonam Yadav. Several other quality performers like Ravindra Jadeja, Harbhajan Singh, Chris Green, Shadab Khan, Radha Yadav, Deepti Sharma apart from Qais Ahmad himself strengthen the bowling attacks of the three teams which were mentioned earlier.

Since the beginning of 2018, no country has been as successful as Afghanistan when it comes to spin bowling. Only India have picked up more wickets through spin bowling but the ‘Blue Tigers’ lead the charts when it comes to average and economy rate.

Team Matches Overs Runs Wickets Average Economy Strike Rate
India 43 335.5 2573 98 26.25 7.66 20.5
Afghanistan 20 221.0 1435 85 16.88 6.49 15.6
Pakistan 31 219.3 1462 64 22.84 6.66 20.5
Sri Lanka 26 216.2 1719 63 27.28 7.94 20.6
New Zealand 30 201.3 1666 62 26.87 8.26 19.5
Bangladesh 27 210.5 1585 59 26.86 7.51 21.4
Australia 30 183.3 1244 56 22.21 6.77 19.6
England 21 111.2 929 37 25.10 8.34 18.0
West Indies 32 155.3 1246 35 35.60 8.01 26.6
South Africa 21 108.0 808 28 28.85 7.48 23.1

 

Gone are the days when the existence of spinners in T20I cricket was a subject of concern as the slower bowlers with a load of variations have proved to be trump cards in the shortest format of the game. Like mentioned above, Afghanistan’s results might be skewed because they don’t get the opportunity to play the top teams but there is no denying that they do possess quality spinners who can possibly trouble even the world’s best batsman. It is a ‘pattern and template’ that has worked so far to their advantage and it remains to be seen whether it continues to reap the same level of success.

As Afghanistan gets to play more across various conditions and against better teams, there may be a need to use a different bowling attack combination and to use Rashid differently but as of now, the leg-spinner, along with Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi, Karim Janat, Naveen Ul Haq and Co., combine together to create a wonderful T20I bowling concoction.