In the 37th over of the morning, Kedar Jadhav went down on one knee and slapped a Rashid Khan delivery over midwicket for four. This was a moment of great significance in the Indian innings; not only was this Jadhav’s first boundary of the match, it was the team’s only boundary in the space of 14 overs between the 26th and the 40th.
This soporific phase would eventually cause the Indians on the field — and those in the stands — to have several anxiety attacks during the end of Afghanistan’s batting innings. Afghanistan nearly pulled off the impossible in a match that turned into an unlikely classic with edge-of-the-seat drama. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Such was India’s batting day on Saturday and, more significantly, such was the nature of the Southampton wicket. The fact that Jadhav was doing his thing in the middle before the death overs should also tell you that India’s top order did not have a great time on the wicket, slow and sticky, which was exploited to the fullest by Afghanistan; and specifically by their slower bowlers.
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Off-spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman opened the bowling and by the time he completed his quota of 10 overs, he had conceded just 26 runs. In fact, none of the four Afghan spinners on show went for more than 38 runs (Rashid alone had gone for 110 in his previous game) and that was, of course, a large reason why India finished with an innings total of 224 for eight.
Then, Afghanistan nearly chased it down and threatened to cause the biggest upset of this World Cup — and perhaps in the history of all the other World Cups too. Coming into this match, India had won all the games they had played and Afghanistan had lost all their games and unfortunately for the neutral – or the fan who has a penchant to back the underdog – it stayed that way even at the end of Saturday, where India achieved a slender and nervy 11-run win.
Finally, India were involved in a contest at this World Cup, but it came against a side they would rather have not been challenged by in the first place, let alone this well. And while the Afghani top-order did what they could, the match got closer than anyone expected because of Mohammad Nabi at the very end with the bat, swinging it this way and that until the very last over during his gritty 52; and because of Mujeeb with the ball, right at the very beginning.
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In his third over, Mujeeb catalysed India’s batting downfall with the wicket of Rohit Sharma. The conjurer of 319 previous runs from three World Cup innings was gone for the addition of 1 run. The opener played all around the offie’s carrom ball — which spun away from the batsman and crashed into his off-stump — leaving India hiccupping at 7 for one in the fifth over. Still, there was no reason to panic just yet for into the Rose Bowl walked Virat Kohli.
The India captain was not bothered by the surface he was playing on, or, if he was then his stroke-play didn’t show it. He flicked Aftab Alam, the head-banded medium-pacer, over deep backward-square-leg for his first four and next ball he punched him through point for four more and his stream of runs began flowing in the eighth over of the innings. But even Kohli’s presence on the pitch couldn’t lift India’s overall run-scoring as the team managed just 41 runs from the first 10 overs and 45 from the next 10.
For a while, in the space of time between overs 21 to 30, Kohli and Vijay Shankar (who finally walked out to bat at No.4) managed to steady the wobble somewhat with a 58-run stand. An on-drive off Rashid brought up Kohli’s fifty, his third in consecutive innings, in the 22nd over and in the following over, Shankar cover-drove the leggie Rahmat Shah for his first of two boundaries, which also brought up the team hundred. But Rahmat exacted his revenge soon on Shankar, trapping him leg before for 29, and Kohli departed soon after.
Kohli’s dismissal was a classic sticky-wicket dismissal. He tried to cut Nabi’s off-spin and was already through with his stroke before the ball arrived, and the edge carried to the squatting fielder at gully. This was not the last time in the day when Nabi threatened to make this match about him. Anyway, Kohli’s dismissal brought Jadhav to the crease, and along with a misfiring MS Dhoni, they would plod India through to the death overs.
The 43rd over, bowled by Alam, brought Jadhav, Dhoni and India a rare haul of boundaries. Jadhav hooked the medium-pacer for four and Dhoni did the same by driving him, inside-out, to the fence past covers. But an over later, Dhoni nearly ran Jadhav out (had the fielder not slipped while receiving the throw, India would not have gotten anywhere nearly their eventual score) before getting stumped off Rashid. Dhoni’s 52-ball suffering had produced a total of 28 runs, and India were 8 runs shy of 200 with only 33 balls to go.
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Jadhav would get them there, the team score of 200, with a one-handed six off Alam in the 46th over. It was the only six of the Indian innings but even more incredibly, this six was also India’s final boundary. Neither Jadhav, nor the usually heavy-hitting Hardik Pandya, could find the ropes in the final 25 balls of the innings and that was as much due to the Afghanistan’s excellent bowling as it was due to an awkward pitch. So awkward that when Jadhav got to his fifty in the 50th over, he almost looked disappointed and both his bat and his head stayed down.
All eleven Indian heads were often down during Afghanistan’s chase, and especially during the end of it. It was in the 32nd over when for the first time, more runs were needed than balls, but Afghanistan didn’t panic. For, by the 35th, the middle-order pair of Nabi and Najibullah Zadran had brought the runs required to double digits. This left-right pair would see them through to the death overs, where Afghanistan needed 68 runs from 60 balls.
It would seem imminently doable when Zadran flicked the first ball of the last 10 overs (bowled by Shami) for four runs or when in the 45th (also bowled by Shami) Nabi lofted a handsome one-bounce four over covers to bring the equation down to 45 runs from 35 balls. And it really didn’t seem like it would be Shami’s day when he ran in to bowl the third-to-last over – with 24 runs needed – and his LBW shout against Nabi was reversed by the third umpire (the impact indeed was outside the off stump).
At the other end, Bumrah bowled two icy death overs of such precision–9 of his 12 deliveries in the 47th and the 49th were yorkers–that it kept the game swinging from one side to another, and finally set up Shami to claim his day.
Nabi and Afghanistan needed 16 runs from the final over, and the first Mohammed Shami ball was smacked by Nabi straight back down the ground. This got him to fifty and put Afghanistan two hits away from their greatest ODI win. Nabi even connected one of those hits, but it carried only as far as long-on and he was gone. Shami snuffed out any remaining hope by clattering the stumps of the next two tail-enders back-to-back, ensuring he replicated Chetan Sharma’s World Cup hat-trick event and not the last-ball six off him Sharma is forever remembered for.