Australia squeeze past Afghanistan but T20 World Cup hopes hang by thread

Australia went into their final group match of the Twenty20 World Cup with an ambitious yet straightforward task: execute the perfect mugging of Afghanistan in Adelaide to boost their own net run rate for the tournament ahead of England’s. In the end they barely escaped with a win, as a late Rashid Khan assault all but stole the pursuit of 168 for eight in the final over, falling four runs short on 164 for seven.

Australia’s fate is now in other hands, with their only path to the semi-finals requiring a Sri Lanka win over England on Saturday.

Today’s Afghanistan is an altogether hardier side than the one that shipped 417 runs against Australia in the 50-over World Cup of 2015. Taliban fanatics have seized their country, destroying the nascent women’s programme and making the men in effect a team in exile. Somehow these players have kept their heads, qualifying directly for this tournament in the top eight, and denied a chance to strut their stuff at the MCG by two washouts. There is no better reflection of their toughness than Rashid limping off Adelaide Oval on Tuesday with a badly jarred knee, then bowling beautifully and batting like a demon come Friday night.

Australia hit speed bumps before the match: Aaron Finch, the captain, and the finisher Tim David ruled out with hamstring injuries, replaced after a tournament on the sidelines by Cameron Green and Steve Smith. The replacements faced six balls and made seven runs between them, while among the fast bowlers Kane Richardson replaced Mitchell Starc and was lashed for 48 runs in his allotment.

With Australia needing fast wickets against a batting side unaccustomed to top pace, it was an especially strange selection given that Finch had spent his press conference the day before talking up Starc both as a new-ball genius and a middle-overs enforcer. If injury was an issue, it was not disclosed.

The match was never fully Australia’s way. David Warner and Mitchell Marsh threatened when the field was up, the former clever in creating angles behind square, the latter hitting powerfully through the ball. They seized 50 from the first five overs, but were respectively quelled for 25 and 45. Marcus Stoinis may have hit Australia’s fastest ever 50 against Sri Lanka last week, but despite a couple of sixes against Afghanistan he could barely surpass a run a ball for his 25. Only Glenn Maxwell bettered the 10 runs per over that Australia really needed, taking on spinners and seamers alike, batting through to the close for 54 from 32 balls.

Naveen-ul-Haq Murid stood out, a young quick with a fine action who faced down the charging Australians and emerged with three for 21. He bowled a switch-hitting Warner, joined a small club in pinning Smith lbw, and had Pat Cummins caught in the deep for a duck, before fielding off his own bowling to run out Richardson at the non-striker’s end.

Fazalhaq Farooqi has impressed through the tournament, topping 140kph, hitting a length like the one that nicked off Green, and nailing his yorkers like the superb example to bowl the dangerous Matthew Wade for six. He finished with two for 29, Rashid was his usual parsimonious self with one for 29, and only everybody’s favourite amateur bodybuilder Gulbadin Naib got badly hit.

That left Australia needing to keep Afghanistan to 106 to match England’s net run rate, and lower to take a meaningful lead. Hope went quickly, with Rahmanullah Gurbaz unabashedly whacking a huge leg-side six and slashing four off Josh Hazlewood’s opening over. He made 30 off 17, Afghanistan were 47 for two after the powerplay, and then came Gulbadin to get his own back, looting runs mainly from Richardson.

An Afghanistan win was firming – they needed 71 off 42 balls with Gulbadin on 39 and Ibrahim Zadran on 26 well set. Then three wickets fell in four balls, Gulbadin run out by a Maxwell direct hit from the deep before Adam Zampa created two catches. Hazlewood followed with the important wicket of the long-time Big Bash player Mohammad Nabi, who resigned as Afghanistan captain after the game. The score was 103 for six, still below that threshold for net run rate.

But Rashid was not done. Having tucked the ball around for 10 from 11, he suddenly smote two massive sixes off Richardson in the 18th over and another from Hazlewood in the 19th. His method was simple, baseballing anything short, lofting drives if anything was full, snapping his wrists through the ball in his customary manner to gain bat speed. It worked.

Needing 22 from the last over, Stoinis started with a wide, and Darwish Rasooli ran himself out at the far end to get Rashid on strike. Rashid belted one more six and two fours, one of them just short of the rope, and couldn’t quite get there, with 16 from the over a commendable effort as he finished on 48 not out.

In terms of having an effect on the group, Afghanistan might well live in Australian memories as the team that knocked them out of their home World Cup. If not, another relationship must come to the fore. When the Australians went to crisis-hit Sri Lanka last June, there was a lot of gratitude expressed for the visit. Now they are asking Sri Lanka to return the favour.