Ibrahim Zadran‘s hundred against Australia was not just the first World Cup century by an Afghanistan batter: it was symbolic of Afghanistan’s batting graduation to the next level, writes Naman Agarwal, who was at the venue.

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The cover fielder has just had a routine shy at the stumps at the non-striker’s end. There was no chance of a run out, but fielders don’t wait for that these days, do they? The bowler, however, has asked the fielder to not do that, lest he ended up conceding unnecessary overthrows. Reasonable request, you’d think. But when the team in question is Australia, the bowler is their captain Pat Cummins, and the opposition is Afghanistan, it feels odd.

Playing a World Cup game against a team that has appeared in fewer tournaments than Australia have won, you’d expect them to be on top, to be ruthless, to not care about the extra run that may or may not arise from throwing at the stumps. But they do. Because the scoreboard reads 204-3 after 41 overs.

That is a solid position to be in. And as Afghanistan are going to show in the next nine overs, it is a position good enough to take them to a total that would require Australia to make the biggest chase in ODI cricket at this venue – 291.

All these years, Afghanistan’s spinners have been their face. In this World Cup, their batting has turned a corner. At the Wankhede Stadium, it received its degree of graduation against Australia, with Ibrahim Zadran leading the way.

Before the 2023 World Cup, Afghanistan had crossed 270 in an ODI innings only once against Pakistan, England, India, and Australia combined. At the World Cup, they have done so four times out of four.

“I’m very wary to say that you can crack anything with regards to the game of cricket. As soon as you think you’ve cracked this game, it cracks you back, trust me,” said Jonathan Trott, the Afghan coach who has galvanised the team with the methodical calmness that used to define his batting, when asked about whether they had cracked the chasing code in ODIs after their match against Netherlands.

While Trott’s apprehensions are well-founded and his comments were in relation to batting second, the way Afghanistan went about their business against Australia in Mumbai seems to indicate that they might actually be onto something as far as their batting is concerned.

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Coming into the World Cup, every bowling attack knew that if they got rid of the Afghan top three and the rest would follow. Only three of their batters averaged more than 35 in ODI cricket at the start of the World Cup, you guessed it, their top three in the World Cup squad – Ibrahim Zadran (51.83), Rahmanullah Gurbaz (38.65), and Rahmat Shah (36.12).

Their first game against Bangladesh was a disaster as they were bowled out for 156. When Gurbaz, Zadran, and Rahmat all fell cheaply in their second game against India, it seemed that Afghanistan would be in for a long campaign. But then, unlikely heroes sprang up. Captain Hashmatullah Shahidi scored 80 batting at No.4 and Azmatullah Omarzai, 62 at No.5, making it just the second occasion that the Afghan four and five had crossed 60 in an ODI.

Ikram Alikhil then scored a patient 58 against England, becoming just the third Afghan batter to score an ODI 50 at No.6. After a blip against New Zealand, where they were bowled out for 139, the Afghan batting responded strongly against Pakistan. On a tricky Chennai surface, they chased down 283 for the loss of just two wickets. Each of their top four scored more than 45, making it only the second such occasion in Afghanistan’s ODI history.

The most heartening takeaway from their campaign so far has been that their batting has not just been about their top two or even three. From different positions, different people have raised their game. While a freakshow by the Big Show took the game away from them in Mumbai, Afghanistan’s batting against Australia at the Wankhede Stadium felt like a culmination of all their efforts in the World Cup so far. 

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Gurbaz provided another strong start and looked set to go big before a half-hearted pickup shot found the fielder in the deep. Ibrahim was his usual solid self at the other end, crunching a cracking cover drive off Mitchell Starc in the third over to get his innings going. 

With not much help available from the surface, Australia tried mixing things up. They bowled short early on. Starc was replaced by Glenn Maxwell in the seventh over of the innings. Cummins didn’t take long to start bowling slower balls.

Everything Australia tried, was met with a positive and proactive response, balanced with the right amount of calmness, qualities that have not always been associated with Afghan batting units of the past.

There were periods when runs didn’t come easily. Between the 32nd and 34th overs, they managed only five runs. With set batters at the crease, it would have been easy to give in to panic and go for an unwarranted hoick. But Ibrahim, facing the last ball of the 34th over, gently guided the ball to third man for a single.

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As he would later reveal after the match, he knew that his role was to take it deep. “I didn’t want to throw my wicket, I wanted to go longer, till the end. I knew if we had wickets in hand… then in the last ten overs we can easily get 100, 120,” Zadran said after the game.

As a matter of fact, Afghanistan got 96 in the last 10 overs. Omarzai (22 off 18), Mohammad Nabi (12 off 10), and Rashid Khan (35 off 18), all chipped in with cameos. Even Ibrahim pressed on the accelerator after crossing his hundred, adding 28 runs off his last 12 balls.

Halfway into Australia’s chase, it seemed Afghanistan had scored more than enough. Had they held onto their chances on the field, it would have been that way.

While there are arguments to be made that the acceleration could have come sooner and a couple of dismissals could have been avoided if only the batters went all the way, the improvement in Afghanistan’s batting has been obvious and immense, and Ibrahim, against Australia, was the flag-bearer of it.