World Cup 2019: Why the Afghanistan win is the most vital in India's journey so far
In the end, the day belonged to India's hat-trick man, Mohammed Shami. Under extreme pressure, the speedster struck thrice, including the match-winning scalp of Mohammad Nabi, as the Men in Blue and their fans breathed a sigh of relief after another classic World Cup game.
However, this was not part of the script. India, one of the most complete sides in the tournament, had hardly broken a sweat while demolishing behemoths of the game, South Africa, Australia and arch-rivals Pakistan. Afghanistan, who had lost all their previous matches, were supposed to be an even easier walkover.
However, the war-torn nation's spirit transcended their comparative disadvantage in cricketing acumen. They nearly pulled off a famous upset in a breathless finish at Southampton before India pulled out the big guns to get over the line by 11 runs.
It was a real test of their character, the first time they have had to pull out all their resources to survive a mighty scare. And it is for that very reason that this victory might be considered their most important in the campaign so far.
India chose to bat first after winning the toss, hoping to pile on the misery on the opposition the way they had done against more illustrious opposition in the previous games. But they found themselves on a sticky wicket, literally, from the go.
In-form ace Rohit Sharma got a peach of a delivery early on to be clean bowled by Mujeeb-ur-Rahman, and the struggle began for the titans of the Indian batting line up. The wonderful Afghan spinners Rahman, Nabi, Rashid Khan and Rahmat Shah began spinning a web around them on a slow surface.
The top batsman was Virat Kohli, who seemed to find it easier than everyone in a masterful knock which fell short of its full potential as the maestro departed for 67 just before unleashing himself. Thereafter, things just got tougher for the Indians as MS Dhoni looked shackled and the others batted in a similar vein with the ball hardly coming on to the bat.
Kedar Jadav's fifty in difficult circumstances gave India a total of 224 and something to defend. But it was still a great opportunity for the Afghans to record a massive upset after a wonderful performance on the field.
However, the way India defended their measly total augurs well for the future ambitions of winning the World Cup 2019 for the team. Kohli was inspirational as the skipper as the Indians hunted in packs on the field, bowled to a plan and never let their heads drop even when Nabi was threatening to take the game away during his 55-ball 52.
The bowling was top notch, especially from Jasprit Bumrah, whose yorkers were unplayable towards the end and who broke the partnership between Shah and Hasmatullah Shahidi when they were threatening to build a solid foundation. And of course there was Shami, whose ferocious final over, laden with a hat-trick, sealed the deal for India.
Even Hardik Pandya chipped in with useful wickets, and Yuzvendra Chahal was not afraid to flight the ball and got rewarded for it.
The significance of the win
This was the first time that India were really threatened in the tournament; they faced the ignominy of an upset after beating bigger teams. A loss would have suddenly put their chances of progress under a cloud as well.
However, the way responded on the field was commendable and showed their steely resolve. A test like this will put them in good stead for the bigger battles ahead. The bowling was severely tested but came good through versatility and level-headedness.
The one concern will be the batting, as the middle-order wasn't convincing on a day the top-order did not shield them till the latter overs. But you get the feeling that their self-belief will be enough to carry them through.
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