Two halves of contrasting nature brought out all the elements associated with a low-scoring thriller. In the end, Afghanistan bowled Zimbabwe out for a mere 82 to script a memorable 49-run win in Sharjah. On a slow deck that sprung to life under lights, it was Mirwais Ashraf, the seamer, who opened the flood gates with two early blows before the spinners led by Amir Hamza dismantled a nervous middle order with point precision.
Afghanistan took a 1-0 lead by successfully defending the lowest total for an Associate team against a Full Member – 131 – and sent out an clear message that it will need a mammoth effort from Zimbabwe to entertain thoughts of winning in conditions as subcontinent as it can get.
What was to be a regulation chase turned into a mess as Zimbabwe were reduced to 12 for 3 even before the supper break. Chamu Chibhabha was bowled by Hamza’s inswinger, Craig Ervine top-edged a whip to third man, while Richmond Mutambami’s big gap between bat and pad resulted in a broken middle stump.
Zimbabwe needed the industry of their captain Elton Chigumbura and the experience of Sikandar Raza to steer them out of troubled waters, but Afghanistan’s spinners strangled the batsmen so well that they were forced to play the glory shot a little too often. On a surface that didn’t aid stroke making. the ploy boomeranged on Zimbabwe and they failed to even last 31 overs.
While Hamza picked up four wickets, two of which were courtesy deliveries that spun across the face of the bat to hit the stumps, Mohammad Nabi’s loopy offspin yielded two scalps, including Chigumbura’s which broke Zimbabwe’s spine. A recovery from 64 for 5 was never going to be on.
Raza’s mix-up with Malcolm Waller that had both batsmen stranded at the same end, looking helplessly at each other as Afghanistan pumped their fists in joy, summed up a game where their batting fragility was ruthlessly exposed.
Under the circumstances, Noor Ali Zadran’s 63 proved to be gold dust even as the other Afghanistan batsmen were victims of their own diffidence. They started like a bullet train, but finished like a two-stroke engine that ran out of oil. Fifty nine runs were added in the first 10 overs, but they lost the last seven wickets for 38 to be bowled out in 38.5 overs after electing to bat on a surface that didn’t have the typical Sharjah sheen.
A bulk of the damage was done by Graeme Cremer, the legspinner, courtesy subtle changes in pace and clever use of angles as he finished with 5 for 20.
Cremer would have hoped to put his feet up and soak in the moment that brought him a second five-wicket haul in ODIs, but the manner in which Zimbabwe’s top order caved in meant he could not. He had to shepherd an inexperienced Zimbabwe tail against a spirited team and a boisterous crowd.
In the end, a crest-fallen Cremer, whose spell should have won Zimbabwe the match, was stranded in the middle as the Afghans celebrated a Test-team takedown in style.