You didn’t really have to watch to absorb all the action at the Narendra Modi Stadium. All you had to do was close your eyes and listen to the sounds.
The hush when the game was seemingly heading nowhere. The celebratory cry from Gerald Coetzee, returning to the XI after being dropped against India, when he landed the cricketing equivalent of a one-two punch, a venomous short ball followed by a scorching full-length delivery for a wicket. The ‘tock’ each time the ball pinged off Azmatullah Omarzai’s sweet spot. The groan when he was left stranded three runs short of a well-deserved century. And the seamless, spontaneous transition into applause, a standing ovation as Omarzai walked off.
South Africa won the dead rubber by five and 15 balls to spare, overcoming minor hiccups to chase down the target of 245 with five wickets to spare. But it was in the closing stages of the first innings where the actual story lies.
RASSIE LEADS PROTEAS CHASE 👏
Brilliant batting Rassie van der Dussen to steer the Proteas to a win over Afghanistan 🇿🇦🇦🇫
— Proteas Men (@ProteasMenCSA) November 10, 2023
For, that phase captured two consistent themes of this World Cup. For the semifinal-bound South Africa, their sub-par death bowling – already exploited by the Netherlands and Bangladesh – was exposed once again after Afghanistan scored 71 in the last 10 overs.
It also celebrated Afghanistan’s most innate quality – their stubbornness, the absolute refusal to give up no matter how dire the situation. They would bow out but not without a fight. This indomitable spirit was personified on Friday by the young Omarzai.
For the longest time, though, they resembled a boxer left dizzy and with wobbly legs, still recovering from the previous punch landed by Australia.
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Afghanistan started uncharacteristically. The openers – Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran reversed their roles. Gurbaz, who usually does the big-hitting up front, adopted a safety-first approach. Zadran, the more cautious of the two, was carefree. Both were back to the pavilion inside the first powerplay.
The stability provided by the openers and the steady scoring by the middle order have been the hallmark of Afghanistan’s batting at this World Cup. On Friday, their innings was bereft of these elements.
It wasn’t like they were scoring at a slow rate because of a strategic decision. It was a combination of some daft shot-making and tight bowling, especially by Coetzee and Keshav Maharaj.
Afghanistan collapsed from 41/0 to 116/6. But Omarzai, who has grown up in a war-torn region of Afghanistan, remained calm amidst the carnage around him.
In many ways, the 23-year-old has been their find of the tournament: a fast-bowling all-rounder, who comes in at number 5 and bowls at 140-plus. A batsman who can walk in at any situation and adapt; be it playing a breezy knock coming in at a relatively comfortable position against Sri Lanka or grinding it out like he did against India, helping his team post a respectable total. The kind of knocks that have forced the Afghan think-tank to reduce the established Gulabdin Naib to the bench.
With the ball, Omarzai has the potential to bulldoze through any batting line-up, the glimpse of which we saw against Australia when he took two in two. His wrist position reminded Sachin Tendulkar of India’s swing kings Praveen Kumar and Bhuvaneswar Kumar.
His unbeaten knock of 97 was another reminder of why Afghanistan can go home with immeasurable hope even though the pain of the Australia defeat, which decisively ended their semifinal hopes, will linger.
Omarzai weathered the storm early on when South Africa’s bowlers were on top, made most of a lifeline handed to him by Andile Phehlukwayo, who fluffed an easy opportunity to run him out. He kept the scoreboard ticking with brisk running between the wickets and then with some clean-hitting towards the end.
He made Phehlukwayo pay for his mistake with the run-out by clobbering him to the straight boundaries. He showed no regard for Kagiso Rabada, effortlessly punching him through the covers. And he milked a struggling Lungi Ngidi – who had earlier walked off after injuring his ankle – all over the park, clearing the boundaries of the stadium with ease.
At a venue where two of his teammates – Rashid Khan and Noor Ahmad – have made a name for themselves with Gujarat Titans, Omarzai made a good case for himself to secure an IPL contract with the player auction a little more than a month away.
His innings ended on a bittersweet note, just like Afghanistan’s overall campaign. Needing 3 runs off the last 3 balls to score only the second century by an Afghan player at the World Cup, the man who was middling almost everything couldn’t connect. He fell short but not before propelling his team to a score that their deadly spin quartet had a chance to defend.
Three of them – Mujeeb ur Rahman, Mohammad Nabi, and Rashid – exposed South Africa’s vulnerability while chasing by taking five wickets between them. South Africa had to endure a few anxious moments but Rassie van der Dussen did what Omarzai had done for Afghanistan. His unbeaten 76 steadied the ship and ensured they crossed the finish line.
The good news for the Proteas is that they go into the semifinals against Australia on the back of a win while chasing. The not-so-good news for them is they fly to Kolkata with seeds of doubt sown into their minds. Afghanistan, on the other hand, fly back home with nothing but boundless optimism.