They worried Sri Lanka with a rousing batting recovery, startled South Africa with a barnstorming start in a big chase, and left England gasping with their spin bowling. Three Super 10 matches against three Full Members, and Afghanistan created chances of winning each of them. They eventually fell short all three times, but the displays have only strengthened their belief that beating top opposition is not a distant prospect.
On Sunday, Afghanistan will end their World T20 with a meeting against West Indies, who top their group with three wins in three matches. Afghanistan will be up against, perhaps, the most power-packed batting line-up they have faced in the tournament.
But in Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Samiullah Shenwari and Hamza Hotak, Afghanistan have enough depth in the spin department to make life difficult for batsmen reliant on big shots on a slow pitch and one of the bigger outfields in Indian cricket. Afghanistan have played three matches at the VCA Stadium before, in the first round, and though they faced far weaker opposition at that stage of the tournament, they know the conditions.
“Definitely, their batting is very [strong], but we have a very good spin department,” Asghar Stanikzai, Afghanistan’s captain, said on the eve of the match. “So where we can restrict them is, we will try to depend more on spinners, since the boundaries over here are longer and hitting the spinners will not be that easy. They are good strikers of the ball but we play good cricket, and are not just trying to give them a tough time but we are here to go back with at least one win [from the Super 10 stage].”
Afghanistan have made massive strides since their first appearance at a world event in 2010, and Stanikzai said they were no longer content simply with pushing big teams hard. He was particularly disappointed that they had let strong positions slip against Sri Lanka and England, and said Afghanistan were close to being a “serious team” that would win matches regularly.
“When we first appeared in that [2010 World T20] in West Indies, we were only thinking that we are playing with big names and most of us were very impressed with the players around,” Stanikzai said. “This time we are not only participating in this tournament but we were serious about it.
West Indies are already through to the semi-finals, but their coach Phil Simmons knows they cannot take Afghanistan lightly.
“They’ve played well in all the games,” he said. “They’ve batted really well, [especially when] they were chasing a big score against South Africa, who we played yesterday. So they’ve been playing well and I know them from before [Simmons was Ireland’s coach from 2007 to 2015], so I know that they’re going to come to try and win. So we’ve got to just play properly.”
While Afghanistan are clearly a team on an upward curve, there are fears that West Indies are heading in the opposite direction. They have failed to qualify for the ODI Champions Trophy in 2017, and have struggled in Test cricket for a number of years. They have been among the best T20 sides in the world, as their displays in this tournament have suggested, but some of their biggest stars in the format, including Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy, are in their 30s and could possibly be playing at their last ICC event.
Simmons disagreed with the pessimistic view of the future, pointing to the fact that Bravo and Sammy are only in their early 30s, the fact that the current squad has performed so well while missing Kieron Pollard, Lendl Simmons and Sunil Narine, and the fact that West Indies have just won the Under-19 World Cup.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
(ESPN Sports Media Ltd).