Afghanistan are coming off an excellent run in limited-overs cricket. Since the last Asia Cup in Bangladesh in 2016, Afghanistan have won six out of their 10 one-day international series while drawing two and losing just two. The teams they have beaten include Scotland, Zimbabwe and Ireland, in addition to the Windies, whom they defeated in the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2018 to lift the trophy.
This run of good results can be traced back to the end of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. After the tournament, Afghanistan beat Zimbabwe twice in three-match series, both in Zimbabwe as well as in the United Arab Emirates, which has been one of their home venues for quite some time. Most recently, they beat Ireland 2-1 in a three-match ODI series in Ireland.
Afghanistan national team start training in Dubai ahead of the upcoming Asia Cup. They will also play practice matches against three local clubs as part of their preparation for the tournament.#AsiaCup2018 pic.twitter.com/u8zzHjEZ4A— Afghan Cricket Board (@ACBofficials) September 7, 2018
While Mohammad Nabi, Asghar Afghan and Mohammad Shahzad have been the veterans keeping the team in place, the emergence of Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman has strengthened Afghanistan as an all-round unit, especially on the spin-bowling front.
And then, they have Rahmat Shah, Javed Ahmadi, Gulbadin Naib, Samiullah Shinwari and Najibullah Zadran, who are experienced enough with the bat to support opener Shahzad, captain Afghan and all-rounder Nabi. They also have youngsters in Ihsanullah, the opening batsman, fast bowlers Aftab Alam, Sayed Ahmad Sherzad and Yamin Ahmadzai, and Sharafudin Ashraf, the all-rounder, eager to make a mark.
But Afghanistan's remarkable returns in limited-overs cricket have largely been down to the spinners – Khan, Rahman and Nabi mainly – who have troubled batsmen time and again with their variations.
Khan, the No.2 bowler on the MRF Tyres ICC ODI Rankings, has emerged as a breakaway talent over the past two years and has taken his wickets' tally to 108 from 47 games at a remarkable average of 14.22.
Also a reliable lower-order hitter, Khan's average of 20.31 and strike rate of 97.03 makes him a dangerous customer lower down the order and he has the capability to turn the game on its head with brisk cameos.
Rahman, the 17-year-old, is a mystery finger spinner, capable of bowling the off-break, the leg-break and variations of both. He has 37 wickets from 18 ODIs at 18.21 and with spin expected to play a big role in the tournament, could prove out to be Afghanistan's trump card. With fast bowlers Wafadar and Dawlat Zadran ruled out due to injuries, the onus will rest heavily on the spinners and all-rounders.
Afghanistan are also playing in the UAE, where they have played a lot of their home games in the recent past, and thus they start out with a little advantage over teams like India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Player to watch
Outside of the usual suspects, Najibullah Zadran, the 25-year-old middle-order batsman, has been a constant in the Afghanistan line-up for quite some time and with both age and experience on his side, he could be a player to keep an eye on. With 1040 runs from 47 games, he already features in Afghanistan's top 10 all-time leading ODI run scorers and with eight half-centuries to his name, he has proven that he can dig in and build an innings.
A strike of 86.52 for a batsman who bats in the middle order isn't bad either and his last five outings in the format have fetched him 42, 17*, 63*, 19 and 32. He could be the man around whom the rest of the batting order revolves.
History in the Asia Cup
Afghanistan have only played in one Asia Cup tournament, in 2014, and did not make the knockouts. They did, however, beat Bangladesh, but lost to Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.
17 September: v Sri Lanka
20 September: v Bangladesh
Squad: Asghar Afghan (c), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Ihsanullah Janat, Javed Ahmadi, Rahmat Shah, Hashmat Shahidi, Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Rashid Khan, Najibullah Zadran, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Aftab Alam, Samiullah Shinwari, Munir Ahmad Kakar (wk), Sayed Ahmad Sherzad, Sharafudin Ashraf, Yamin Ahmadzai