Southampton, June 23: Even in defeat, Afghanistan were the winners. Not the clichéd moral victors, but winners of hearts, if not the two points up on offer. They came into their sixth game of the World Cup on Saturday (June 22) after a royal drubbing at the hands of England, and almost pulled the rug from under the feet of India. Mighty India.
Formidable, high-flying, unbeaten, muscular, seasoned, well-oiled India. They played with the pride and passion that had been missing previously, they almost punished their far more experienced and superior opponents for being lackluster with the bat and lackadaisical on the field.
If they fell just 11 runs short of India's total of 224 for eight, it was less due to their ineptitude and more because of the sheer quality of an attack in which Jasprit Bumrah was the clear star, hat-trick man Mohammed Shami the excellent support act who almost matched the hero for effect, Hardik Pandya capable if profligate, and spin twins Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav parsimonious.
Despite looking well off the boil, India played the key moments just a shade better. Afghanistan will rue letting the big brothers get away, but they will take heart from the spunk they displayed for a full seven-plus hours in front of a solid and decidedly pro-Indian gathering at the Ageas Bowl.
India's total was their lowest when they have batted first and batted out their 50 overs since 2010. In itself, that has to be a spectacular achievement for a unit that leaked 397 against England just four days previously. That they used their four-pronged spin attack to tie down and make deep inroads against batsmen that are arguably the finest players of the turning ball was an added feather in the cap of Mujeeb-ur-Rehman, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan and Rahmat Shah.
Between them, the foursome finished with five for 119 from 34 overs in admittedly spin-friendly conditions. More than those numbers, it was their control over their craft and vice-like grip on the Indian batting that was extremely impressive. Mahendra Singh Dhoni could hardly get the ball off the square, KL Rahul and Vijay Shankar were forced to embrace careful watchfulness, and even the innovative Kedar Jadhav had to revisit his designs. Only Virat Kohli, batting on a different plane to the rest of his team-mates, had their measure, though he too was undone by the extra bounce from Nabi that defeated his attempted cut and put point in business.
It was impossible not to smile along with Gulbadin Naib when the Afghan captain set his disappointment aside temporarily and spoke at the post-match press conference of his favourite team and his favourite player. Naib has had a difficult initiation to the captaincy after replacing Asghar Afghan in the lead-up to the competition.
Senior players including Rashid and Nabi had hit out at the leadership change, not because they were anti-Naib but because they believed stripping Asghar of the captaincy so close to the World Cup would prove counter-productive. Naib wasn't unaware of their sentiments, but he has managed to rally his troops around him; the results haven't been forthcoming, but on Saturday evening, he could allow himself a smile at having run his favourite team really dangerously close.
Clearly, it hurt that, having sighted the finish line, his band of warriors couldn't breast the tape, but that didn't stop him from letting slip a cute secret. "At one time, we thought we could win easily, very easily, but in the end, I say, yeah, the emotion coming inside... We are sad because we had a chance to beat this kind of team. In the World Cup, it's a big achievement for any team," he said.
"But the big teams, they don't give a single chance. Today, we missed an opportunity to win, to beat India. "India is one of the best sides. It's my favourite team. Always my favourite team, and I support the Indian team when I'm watching them."
He then turned his focus to the man with whom he went out for the toss at 10.00 am. "And also, my favourite is Virat Kohli, and I played against him (today)."
A little fan-boy moment for a hero and a leader. Naib and Afghanistan might have been on the wrong side of the result this time around, but they will be better for the experience. And more of a threat in time to come.
(R Kaushik is a cricket writer who has followed the sport closely for nearly three decades, and is covering his seventh World Cup)