The first two matches of the ICC World Twenty20 2012 at Colombo went as per script, although that their stories could have been reversed.
Ireland were expected to challenge Australia, and not just because of the ICC rankings, but they came a cropper. Afghanistan were expected to roll over and die, instead they chose to pick up a sword and fight until the very end.
Perhaps for the first time in their international cricket sojourn, there was a weight of expectation on the Irish team. They have done well in the sub-continent, shown in the ODI World Cup last year that they are no pushovers when they get it together. Factor in the vagrancies of this T20 format and you would have bet money on them to run a big team close.
Australia's T20 form hasn't been that great either and hence a closer match was anticipated, and it is possible that the Irish couldn't bear to play with this pressure.
There were moments of brilliance in their play, which made you wonder how this match could have been different. At 33 for four in the eighth over, their top order stood destroyed. There wasn't any more hope of a tall score but they needed something on the board. Cue the O'Brien brothers, who were at the crease.
For nearly three overs, they scratched around. Pushing and prodding, for the runs weren't coming as Shane Watson and Brad Hogg made life miserable for them. Then Niall swept Glenn Maxwell for four, their first boundary in 29 balls, and the shackles were broken.
Kevin, gaining widespread notoriety for lusty hitting, smacked five more in the next three overs. The two in the 14th over bowled by Mitchell Starc were pure joys. On the third ball, a short delivery, he latched on early and pulled it in front of square. And then the final ball of that over, a fuller one, he made room towards leg-stump, just stood there and drove it on the up for four.
You wonder what might have been if these two didn't have to do a repair job. You wonder what might have been if they had opted to chase, and then gone about it fearlessly, just like they did against England at Bangalore last year. Look past though, forget their nerves for one second, for the Irish impressed. Enough to make you believe still that they will be a force to reckon with some day - and that day will come around as quickly as they can learn to cope with pressure at this level, and deal with the likes of Watson.
For Afghanistan that day might come sooner. And it will be no surprise if India find themselves on the receiving end. They almost did at R. Premadasa last night and a little spurt of hard-hitting from another Afghan batsman remained the difference between the two sides – 23 runs. Four of them reached double figures and the minimum score was 18. Imagine what they might have achieved.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni isn’t one to believe in conjecture and he certainly won’t lose any sleep over it. Even so, that his bowlers were made to look ridiculous by these inexperienced opposition batsmen ought to have seriously dented his confidence of going far in this tournament.
There was this one over which showcased India's helplessness when the opposition is hell-bent on making a fine chase. At 100 for six after 15 overs, Afghanistan were never going to win the match. But someone forgot to tell Mohammad Nabi that. The 16th over bowled by Zaheer Khan was hit away for 16 runs. More telling than that was the manner in which Nabi flustered India's most experienced bowler.
Zaheer was intent on bowling full and the Afghan showed no fear. The first ball was deposited over extra cover for six, next one off the pads for two runs, and the third drilled down the ground for two more. The defiance was complete off the fourth ball when Zaheer, in desperate search of a wicket, attempted a yorker. Instead Nabi smacked that low full toss to backward square leg for four.
What if Afghanistan had held their catches? Virat Kohli countered in the post-match conference that India also could have bowled better, possibly. Well, they surely need to, the next time these two sides meet. Going by Afghanistan's progression from the 2010 World T20 in West Indies to this edition in Lanka, an upset is just around the corner.
© Cricket World 2012
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