SOMETIMES the prospect of a sporting contest sets the pulse racing to the point where one is positively wracked with excitement.
This was not one of those occasions.
With all due respect to Afghanistan and West Indies, a meeting between the bottom two teams in the World Cup table, teams with no hope of qualifying for the knockout stages, teams who had lost 14 of their combined 16 group fixtures and, in Afghanistan’s case, disgraced the competition with the behaviour of some of their supporters in the match against Pakistan at Headingley five days earlier, this was about as mouthwatering a contemplation as a slice of mouldy cheese.
Such is the disadvantage for venues staging games towards the end of the group phase, which can have everything riding on them or nothing at all.
Although the coffin lid had closed around this dead fixture long before umpire Chris Gaffaney called “Play” on a gloriously sunny morning, it still provided plenty of interest for a 15,000 crowd, swelled by around 3,000 schoolchildren, their faces suffused with the sort of infectious enthusiasm which utterly belied the match’s significance.
They watched West Indies beat Afghanistan by 23 runs, thereby signing off with a second win and condemning their opponents to a dismal return of nine defeats from nine, a huge disappointment for an emerging cricketing nation which, although nascent, had been expected to spring the odd surprise.
Unlike their defeats to India and Pakistan, when they showed signs of flowering potential, it was not a case of close but no cigar for Afghanistan this time.
West Indies scored 311-6 from their 50 overs, Afghanistan replying with 288, their hopes raised by a splendid second-wicket stand of 133 in 25 overs between Ikram Alikhil (86 from 93 balls) and Rahmat Shah (62 from 78), Ikram’s the highest score by an 18-year-old at a World Cup, beating Sachin Tendulkar’s record.
After West Indies chose to bat on a slowish pitch, initial interest centred on whether Chris “Universe Boss” Gayle could break Brian Lara’s record for the most one-day international runs for West Indies.
He needed 18 to overhaul Lara’s 10,348 but managed only seven, caught behind as he threw his bat at a ball outside the off stump from Dawlat Zadran, a 31-year-old fast-medium bowler.
There is speculation that the veteran Gayle will continue playing after the World Cup like some cricketing version of the Rolling Stones.
But esteemed voices such as West Indies fast bowling legend Sir Curtly Ambrose have urged the 39-year-old left-hander to “bow out gracefully”, allowing the next generation to take its turn.
Part of that next generation is Shai Hope, the 25-year-old right-hander, who top-scored with 77 from 92 balls, and Nicholas Pooran, the 23-year-old left-hander signed by Yorkshire for the first five games of the T20 Blast, who struck 58 from 43 deliveries.
Allied to comparatively old hands Evin Lewis and captain Jason Holder, who made 58 and 45 respectively, West Indies put up an impressive score to which 22-year-old Shimron Hetmeyer contributed 39.
Gayle, in fact, was the only frontline West Indies batsman to perish in single figures and the only one who did not strike a six.
His team-mates were assisted by some poor fielding at times, not least when Carlos Brathwaite launched the last delivery of the innings towards the long-off boundary in front of the pavilion, where Gulbadin Naib, the Afghanistan captain, allowed a straightforward catch to slip through his hands as he completely lost sight of the ball, which trickled away for four.
Early in the piece, Hope was dropped on five by Rashid Khan at mid-wicket off Dawlat, a catch so straightforward that Gulbadin could probably have taken it in his sleep.
Another time, Hetmeyer landed Rashid between two fielders running in at deep mid-wicket who, had they collided and ended up flat on their faces, as had seemed likely, would merely have confirmed the impression that the Keystone Cops had somehow sneaked a team into the competition.
Although Hope led the way at the ground where he famously hit twin hundreds against England in 2017, still the only centuries of his 29-Test career, Pooran’s performance was of particular interest to locals in the crowd, who can watch him playing for Yorkshire from a fortnight today.
Powerful and aggressive, he hit six fours and a straight six off Dawlat into the Emerald Stand.
Pooran was run out in the last over trying to steal a bye after sharing 105 for the fifth wicket with Holder, West Indies scoring 111 from the last 10 overs, including 65 from the last five.
Afghanistan flickered but, once Ikram and Najibullah Zadran were out in the space of three balls in the 36th over, leaving them 194-4, they were never seriously in the hunt despite some equally suspect fielding from West Indies, for whom Brathwaite took 4-63.
Former Australia batsman Simon Katich has been named the head coach of the men’s Manchester-based franchise for the inaugural edition of The Hundred next year.