Afghanistan scripted an unbelievable victory over defending champions England in Delhi in the first major upset of the 2023 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup.
The last match at this venue had seen India chase down 273 against the Afghanistan side with 15 overs to spare. The game before that saw the highest aggregate score in a Cricket World Cup game with South Africa making 428/5 and Sri Lanka replying with 326.
Even with 284, their second-highest World Cup score, on board after a fighting effort late in the innings from Ikram Ali Khil and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, the consensus was that Afghanistan had made an under-par score.
Liam Livingstone hinted as much at the innings break, stating that the team had opted to bowl first with the dew factor in mind.
But in a stunning turn of events, Afghanistan chipped away at England’s acclaimed batting line-up, nipping out their ever-reliable top three before the first 15 overs.
How exactly did Afghanistan pull off this memorable upset win?
The uncharacteristic Powerplay
Once put in to bat, the change had to come from the top of the order, where Afghanistan have often been guilty of slow starts.
To push England at a venue that had record-breaking batting numbers recently, they needed a total above par and Rahmanullah Gurbaz set the template by putting the England attack to the sword early.
With 79 runs in the first 10 overs and no wickets down, the first part of the job was done. It was Afghanistan’s greatest start in a World Cup game in the first Powerplay.
They needed Gurbaz to carry on from there, but despite him failing to make a ton after a miserable runout, the platform had been laid by the opening stand of 114.
A much-needed late flourish
Like with the Powerplay, Afghanistan aren’t known to go big in the death overs. Afghanistan’s strike rate is just over 100 in the death overs since the end of the last Cricket World Cup, one of the worst among teams to feature in this tournament.
The start of the death overs indicated as much with the Afghan side making just 21 runs from overs 41 to 45 and losing power hitter Rashid Khan in between.
Mujeeb, who has recently stepped up with the bat more than once, turned the tides with a fiery onslaught on Sam Curran, a bowler Afghanistan targetted right through the game, with the 46th over yielding 18 runs.
Ali Khil and Mujeeb hit a few more boundaries, but with the two dismissed before the end, Afghanistan had still managed lesser than they would have liked. But the key this time was that they had managed to put England under the pump despite being six down at the 40-over mark.
The signs were there early
There were early signs that 284 might just be enough for this Afghanistan attack, heavy on spinners. England’s spinners had gone at an economy rate of 3.9 as against 7.3 by the pacers.
But England’s woes against spin seemed to be a thing of the past. Dawid Malan, a key cog in the batting wheel, is one of the best players of spin, averaging 75.3 and striking at 107.4 since 2022.
And once Malan enters the post-powerplay phase, he is a difficult batter to dismiss. Since 2022, and before this game, Malan had been dismissed only five times while averaging 140.6.
It was key for Afghanistan to see the back of Jonny Bairstow early and Fazal Farooqi did that by exploiting Bairstow’s weakness against left-arm pace. Joe Root’s wicket was an added bonus in the first 10 overs, but there was still the in-form Malan to dismiss and it took a delivery of terrific deception from Mohammad Nabi to work over Malan.
The off-spinner tossed the ball up nicely and got it to dip to force the error off Malan, with the wicket officially setting off panic alarms in the England camp.
Jos Buttler set up by Naveen-ul-Haq
Despite having England three down, Afghanistan weren’t truly on top with the Jos Buttler-led side boasting of a long batting line-up. The skipper himself was the greatest hurdle standing in the way of Afghanistan and a victory.
It required some pretty smart bowling from Naveen-ul-Haq to work over Buttler with a beauty to truly see Afghanistan ascend to the top.
The pacer bowled a maiden over at the skipper and then slanted one back into him a few balls later to clean him up. The massive wicket put England’s batting under too much pressure with Rashid Khan still having a large chunk of overs up his sleeve.
Even with Harry Brook carrying on for England, Buttler's wicket seemed to be the actual turning point that firmly tilted the balance of the game Afghanistan's way.
A historic win
Afghanistan brought an end to a 14-match losing streak in the Cricket World Cup. After going winless in the 2019 event, Afghanistan turned the tide against England using a mix of skill and smarts to beat the defending champions.
It was the first time England had lost eight wickets to spin in a World Cup game, a downfall that was brilliantly scripted by a trio of Afghanistan spinners on top of their game.