Wasim Jaffer: ‘Azmatullah Omarzai will be a star in a few years’
The Afghanistan batter hit 97 not out against South Africa, pushing his team’s score to 244 from 116 for 6 at one innings.
They came. They saw. They even won. It was not the last Friday.
Afghanistan will leave the 2023 World Cup before the knockout matches, but as the team of the tournament for some. They are all guaranteed a sixth-place finish – and with that, a place in the 2025 Champions Trophy – and have presented a mature style of play that suggests they will be serious contenders in future tournaments.
In the immediate aftermath, Afghanistan will look at their batting against Bangladesh, and the dropped catches – against New Zealand, and especially Glenn Maxwell in the Australia game when he was put on 33 before making one double hundred match-winners – such huge missed opportunities. But if they look at the broad perspective, they should reflect on it with great pride in a statement campaign, with collective and individual performances to improve.
Against South Africa in Ahmedabad, the best came from Azmatullah Omarzai, the allrounder who finished three short of becoming the second Afghan batter to score a century at the World Cup, and finished as their second-highest run-scorer. has the highest average. As far as breakout World Cup performances go, Omarzai certainly had one.
He had just 14 ODIs to his name before this World Cup, and had never batted at No. 5 for the national team. In Omarzai’s first outing, he scored 62 against India in Delhi, where Afghanistan revealed the batting blueprint they will use for the rest of the tournament. He followed that up with two more unbeaten half-centuries – against Sri Lanka and South Africa – and also took seven wickets along the way. From what we have seen of Omarzai so far, he is a clean ball-striker and a solid off-side player, who can hit anything very wide.
“I’m always amazed at how he times the ball,” Jonathan Trott, the Afghanistan coach, said of Omarzai in the post-match press conference. “We saw the other night – he hit Mitchell Starc on his head, or mid-off even, for six. It was the same thing today, mid-on. It’s rare that you see players who can do- time the ball. , and to hear the sound of the ball as it comes off his bat…”
Omarzai hit three fours through the covers on Friday, but his shot of the day was a six that he sent back over the head of Aiden Markram. Even through the glass in the press box – and perhaps because the stadium was less than a tenth full – there was an audible thwack and a chorus of oooohs and aaahs, all agreeing with Trott’s sentiment.
“He’s a very special talent,” she said. “I’m anxious to watch the IPL auction when his name comes up.”
Apart from his obvious talent, another reason to be happy with Omarzai’s performance is the depth it represents in Afghanistan. Omarzai is part of the next generation of Afghan players, following pioneers like Mohammad Nabi and Hashmatullah Shahidi. Omarzai was part of the Afghanistan Under-19 team that played in the 2018 age-group World Cup and reached the semi-final, and also included Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Ibrahim Zadran, Ikram Alikhil, Naveen-ul-Haq and Mujeeb Ur Rahman.
All of them have had an impact of some sort on this tournament, and have created a pipeline of Afghan talent for selections to draw from which Trott hopes will continue.
“The next step is to have more squads in terms of more players,” he said. “For the first time, we have really chosen a side depending on the conditions, while before we had 11, and if we had an injury. [it would be a problem]. Now you see the emergence of players. There is certainly a larger pool than in the past from which to choose. “
“The joy on their faces [on] beat Pakistan for the first time – that makes it all worthwhile. That was a moment I will never forget, along with a lot of other guys”Afghanistan coach Jonathan Trott
In this World Cup, Afghanistan have been able to adapt their batting – they brought on Omarzai for Najibullah Zadran earlier – and more so with their bowling. They started by playing two frontline seamers in Naveen and Fazalhaq Farooqi, and when they thought the conditions would allow, switched Farooqi for the fourth spinner in Noor Ahmad, who is part of the youngest generation of talent. Noor is playing in the 2022 Under-19 World Cup side, and already has experience in major leagues like BBL, PSL, CPL and IPL.
Which brings us to the department Trott says Afghanistan is “normally” expected to be strongest in: spin. Rashid Khan, who got off to a slow start amid many questions about whether he would be able to translate his T20 form into the ODIs, finished as Afghanistan’s leading wicket-taker. Afghanistan’s spinners have collectively taken 32 wickets in this World Cup, the most of any group of slow bowlers so far. New Zealand and India, with 27, are next.
Their spinners also played a key role in helping Afghanistan control the middle overs. Between overs 11 and 40, Afghanistan claimed the second lowest run rate of the tournament: 4.97 to the over. Only India, at 4.47, is better.
These are all numbers that Afghanistan will look to – and they will look to them, as we’ve already seen that Trott is a meticulous planner – and recognize them as building blocks for a team that can do more. They will also remember that they completed their longest successful run in ODIs when they beat Pakistan, and then looked for clinical targets against Sri Lanka and the Netherlands. They show that “we can win in different ways”, said Trott.
But mostly they look back on this campaign as a time capsule where they enjoyed some of the best moments of their careers, and showed the world a side of their country that it doesn’t often see: a happy, united and victorious nation – at least in the World Cup – and a group of players having the time of their lives.
“They’re a bunch of guys who take a lot of pride in representing their side. I enjoy that,” Trott said. “If you’re proud of who you are and what you represent in terms of challenges – maybe personal challenges in the past – to be a cricketer, and put that on. [challenges] on one side for a common goal [is great].
“There are times – there are difficult times to try for sure – but these four wins in this World Cup, the joy on their faces. [on] beat Pakistan for the first time – that makes it all worthwhile. That was a moment I will never forget, along with a lot of other guys too.”
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s correspondent for South Africa and women’s cricket