Harare: After a poor start to the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018, Afghanistan needed everything to go their way in the Super Sixes – they had to win all three matches and hope for other results to go their way.
So far, it has all gone perfectly for them, and now, in the must-win final fixture against Ireland, Rashid Khan fronted yet another excellent bowling performance to restrict Ireland to 209/7 and give his side a big chance of making it to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.
Electing to bat in the all-important clash, William Porterfield and Paul Stirling got Ireland off to a reasonable start, adding 53 runs for the opening wicket, but also taking 15.3 overs to each there.
The slow start meant both the batters needed to cash in after settling down but that didn't quite happen as Mohammad Nabi sent Porterfield back after a 45-ball 20.
Andrew Balbirnie, the centurion from Ireland's last game against Scotland, took 33 deliveries to reach 11 before Rashid got into the act to get rid of the Irish No.3 with a nothing delivery.
Niall O'Brien, playing his 100th one-day international, then got into the mix and immediately upped the ante. He was quick on his feet against the spinners and rotated the strike at every given chance as he carved a crucial 44-run stand for the third wicket with Stirling.
The opener opened his shoulders as well, slamming Sharafuddin Ashraf over the deep mid-wicket fence and soon reached his 16th ODI half-century in 77 deliveries, but a bad mix-up ended his stay on 55 with the scoreboard left reading 121/3 in 32.2 overs.
Niall O’Brien was set by then, and had hit four fours and a six during his 36-ball 41 before Dawlat Zadran got him to mistime a drive straight into the hands of Samiullah Shenwari in the covers.
Kevin O'Brien struck a few telling blows at the end as he hit a 37-ball 41, which included three fours and a mammoth six, to get his side closer to the 200-runmark. But the slow start and the regular loss of wickets meant that despite the late flurry, Ireland finished with a below-par total.
None of the Afghan bowlers gave away more than 5.4 runs per over, with Mujeeb Ur Rahman (3.1) and Ashraf (3.0) the most miserly of the lot.
At the halfway stage, it’s advantage Afghanistan, but Ireland, who are in the same boat as their opponents and will qualify with a win, will hope that their bowlers can exploit the many chinks in the often brittle Afghan batting.