Afghanistan are hurting but when they face New Zealand in their third World Cup match at Taunton on Saturday, the team would have to be at their very best to at least put up a competitive performance.
Afghanistan are not only coming off two consecutive defeats against Australia and Sri Lanka but have also lost a key player in the form of Mohammad Shahzad. Shahzad has been ruled out of the tournament and 18-yr-old Ikram Ali Khil was named as his replacement.
This will affect Afghanistan's team combination as Shahzad had a fixed slot as an opener. Now, not only do they have to find an opener, the team might also have to drop a batsman to bring in Ikram Ali Khil.
On the other hand, New Zealand have had a great start to the tournament by winning their first two games against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. All their players have put in key performances and the team seem to be in prime confidence ahead of their third match against Afghanistan.
In such a situation, a few key players like Rahmat Shah, Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan will have to step up so that Afghanistan can have a small chance of upsetting New Zealand at Taunton.
Let us have a look at Afghanistan's Playing 11.
Hazratullah Zazai and Skipper Gulbadin Naib could open be the opening combination for Afghanistan. Mohammad Shahzad's withdrawal from the World Cup means that Afghanistan might have to settle for a makeshift opening combination.
Naib has previous experience of opening as he occupied that slot for a few matches during the World Cup qualifiers.
Rahmat Shah at No 3. Rahmat, arguably Afghanistan's best batsman has had a slow start to the tournament with scores of 43 and 2. He needs to quickly start notching up big scores as Afghanistan's batting continues to falter.
Similarly, another important cog in the wheel for Afghanistan, Hashmatullah Shahidi, would have to put behind his disappointing returns so far and rack up some runs for the team.
Rahmat and Shahidi hold an important role of anchoring the innings for a team that is full of aggressive batsmen.
Mohammad Nabi, one of the world's leading all-rounders, will be an important figure for Afghanistan with both bat and ball. Nabi turned around the previous match against Sri Lanka with a stunning 4-wicket burst but the team failed to capitalise on that superb performance.
Rashid Khan will be expected to provide a handy cameo while batting at No 7. Rashid will also look to have a greater impact with the ball considering the fact that he has only 2 wickets in the tournament so far.
Ikram Ali Khil, the 18-year-old wicket-keeper batsman who replaced Mohammad Shahzad is expected to feature in the 11.
Afghanistan don't have any other specialist keeper in the squad and hence they wouldn't want to risk a part-time wicket-keeper like Rahmat Shah. Khil will bat at No 8.
Dawlat Zadran and Hamid Hassan and Aftab Alam are expected to be the fast bowlers for Afghanistan. Both Hamid and Dawlat were indisciplined against Sri Lanka as they bowled bad line and lengths and also conceded a lot of extras in that process. Afghanistan will hope that the experienced duo come up with better performances against New Zealand.
Meanwhile, Aftab Alam can be expected to replace Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Mujeeb has been in poor form for quite a while and Afghanistan might look to use this opportunity to change the bowling combination.
Najibullah Zadran- While his teammates have fallen like nine pins in both of Afghanistan's matches in this World Cup so far, Najibullah Zadran has been an exception with two good innings (51 against Australia and 43 against Sri Lanka). When needed, Zadran has curbed his naturally aggressive instincts and tried to play according to the situation. This is a welcome sign for Afghanistan especially at a time when even some of their defensive batsmen have lacked patience.
Mohammad Nabi- At times of crisis, the old warhorses seem to somehow flourish while their talented, yet inexperienced counterparts flounder. This perhaps seems to happen because of the variety of situations that such experienced campaigners go through in their career. While Nabi definitely doesn't lack talent, his calmness came through against Sri Lanka when his teammates lacked discipline with the ball. Nabi's quick four-fer restricted Sri Lanka to a total of 207. Later on, Afghanistan messed up the chase as Nabi's day with the ball ended up as a consolation in a disappointing loss. Nabi will look to use that confidence to good effect and churn out some runs as that department is yet to see a notable performance in this World Cup.
Rashid Khan- Inevitable is Rashid's importance to the Afghanistan side. Is there even a chance of him not being a key player for the side? It is a given that Rashid Khan will have a big role in any Afghanistan victory. The ongoing World Cup hasn't seen such a performance from Afghanistan's talisman as he has only been able to strike 3 times so far. Rashid Khan has had teams looking to play him out safely just like what happened in the IPL. As a result, his team has also found it tough in this World Cup. However, one can never put anything past Rashid Khan's reach and a match-winning performance could well be in the reckoning soon enough.
Predicted Playing 11 for Afghanistan
Hazratullah Zazai, Gulbadin Naib (C), Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Mohammad Nabi, Najibullah Zadran, Rashid Khan, Ikram Ali Khil (WK) , Dawlat Zadran, Hamid Hassan, Aftab Alam.
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