Can Afghanistan's spin threat derail power-packed England?

Jos Buttler's team begin the World Cup in ominous form, but injury concerns still surround Livingstone and Woakes

Big picture

As the dramas of the opening week of this World Cup can attest, there really aren’t any pushovers at this level any more. The reduced parameters of the 20-over format, allied to the dog-eat-dog competitiveness that caused each of the eight first-round teams to win and lose at least once in their quest for the main event, ensure that every underdog can and will have his day, if any supposed superior dares to lower his guard.

And in that context, there can be few more riveting match-ups than England versus Afghanistan, a clash of cricketing cultures on the one hand, but one that shares at its core a single uniting ethos – the ball is there to be battered as hard and as far as possible. And on the sort of Perth flyer that allowed England and Australia to muscle 408 runs between them in a six-laden thriller earlier this month, it’s hard to envisage either line-up holding back.

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For all that West Indies offer a cautionary tale, however, it would be quite the shock if England trip up at this early juncture of their campaign, given that they seem at last to have rediscovered their default batting mood. They were made to brawl for a hard-earned 4-3 series win in Pakistan last month, but with four wins in as many completed matches, plus a crushing display of range-hitting in their warm-up against Pakistan in Brisbane, they are primed to plant the front foot for this campaign, and live up to the assertion of their captain Jos Buttler that they will be a “dangerous” proposition in the coming weeks.

That’s not to say, however, that their build-up has been plain sailing. The loss of Jonny Bairstow to a freakish slip on the golf course in August was a devastating blow, particularly after the award-winning summer he had just enjoyed, and when Reece Topley stepped on a rogue boundary marker, they lost another of their most potent powerplay weapons. Concerns still swirl about Liam Livingstone’s ankle and Chris Woakes’ quad, and while Ben Stokes’ star quality can never be in doubt, his precise role in the side remains a work in progress after 18 months in abeyance.

But, given the diffidence of the home summer just gone, in which England failed for the first time since 2013 to win a single white-ball series in four attempts, they remain impressively well placed to challenge for the title that eluded them in the UAE 12 months ago.

To a certain degree, England’s recent reticence was inevitable. Given the extent to which the post-2015 white-ball set-up had been forged in the former captain’s image, the sudden retirement of Eoin Morgan in June – only weeks after the appointment of his new sidekick Matthew Mott – left the set-up becalmed and in danger of imitating its former glories rather than striving for new ones. Jason Roy’s loss of form, and a range of injury absences – most particularly, given his stellar recent displays, Mark Wood – added to this sense of stagnation.

But, quite literally by accident, but ultimately by design, the bold decision to offer an olive branch to Alex Hales in the wake of Bairstow’s slip may yet have provided the jolt that the squad was possibly crying out for. At a stroke, the old order was dismantled – Morgan’s culture-first ethos replaced by something with a touch more desperation, as perhaps befits the needs of a golden generation that might not get many more shots at global glory.

Do Afghanistan have the game for the pace and bounce of Perth?ICC via Getty Images

Certainly this looks likely to be Chris Jordan’s swansong campaign, while the likes of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali are unlikely to extend far beyond next year’s 50-over World Cup defence in India. As for Dawid Malan, last week he was bristling at the indignity of being cut from England’s full central contracts list, but – as one of the most destructive good-wicket batters in the world (and that is not intended as faint praise) – there could be no better stage for him to restate the credentials that carried him to the top of the ICC’s T20I rankings. Either way, there’s a hunger to England’s cricket at the moment that augurs well for the fights to come.

As for Afghanistan, they rarely need prompting to put up a fight at this tournament. Twelve months ago – and once again automatically seeded in the main draw – they won two of their five games, albeit against the qualifiers Namibia and Scotland, but have undergone a fair evolution themselves in the past 12 months. Stalwarts such as Mohammad Shahzad and Hamid Hassan have moved on, but with newcomers such as Fazalhaq Farooqi and Qais Ahmad already fixtures on the franchise circuit, they bring with them a different type of threat and experience.

It will be a significant contest, too, for Afghanistan’s new head coach Jonathan Trott, who has previously worked in England’s camp as a consultant down the years, but has since stepped into the role vacated when Graham Thorpe fell ill earlier this year.

Recent form

England WWWWL (last five completed T20Is, most recent first)

Afghanistan LLLWW

In the spotlight

This is Jos Buttler‘s time to shine. England’s captain has been eased back to full fitness since the calf strain that ended his home season back in August, including through a full seven-match tour of Pakistan in which he didn’t feature even once. But the patience from England’s management looks as though it has paid off, with a brace of formidable half-centuries in last week’s 2-0 series win over Australia including a comeback innings of 68 from 32 balls at this same Perth venue. In the course of his 132-run opening stand with Alex Hales, Buttler tapped unstintingly into the prolific mindset that earned him the MVP award at last season’s IPL, as well as 269 runs at 89.66 and a strike-rate of 151.12 in the previous T20 World Cup 12 months ago. At the age of 32, Buttler is a young captain in the context of the world-beating white-ball set-up that was forged under his predecessor Eoin Morgan, but he’s at the absolute peak of his personal powers right now, and seemingly in the mood to lead England’s campaign from the front.

Rashid Khan is Afghanistan’s blue-chip asset – a competitor who is not simply world-class but arguably the best in his business, as attested to by a career haul of 118 T20I wickets in just 71 matches, and at an incredible economy-rate of 6.24. His methods as a wristspinner are simple but devastating – a flat, wicket-to-wicket approach, with unrelenting accuracy, indecipherable movement both ways, and a speed through the air that confounds any attempt at second-guessing. Factor in his fielding and a swordsman’s flair with the bat, and it’s little wonder he’s a marquee pick at any tournament he turns his hand to. That said, he does not have especially happy memories of his last encounter with England. At Old Trafford in the 2019 World Cup, he was panned for an eyewatering 110 runs in nine overs as Eoin Morgan’s six-laden century set the eventual champions up for their highest total of the tournament, and to judge by Alex Hales’ comments in the build-up to the match, England fancy their chances of taking him down on a similarly springy surface. “Of all the grounds to play him at, Perth is probably one of the friendlier ones as a batter,” Hales said. We shall have to wait and see.

Team news

The loss of Reece Topley is a shattering blow to England’s plans, given his pivotal roles with both the new ball and at the death, as well as his prolific form throughout 2022 – no other England T20I bowler has come close to his 17 wickets at 28.00 this year. To that end, England are likely to stack their rejigged line-up with bowling options – if Livingstone’s ankle is passed fit after his solitary outing against Pakistan this week, he is likely to nudge out Harry Brook, meaning England could have as many as eight bowling options in their 11. These will include Stokes, who has been an intriguing new-ball option since arriving in Australia. With doubts about Woakes’ fitness, it may be up to Sam Curran and David Willey to cover Topley’s top-and-tail overs, with Wood’s raw pace providing the point of difference through the middle. Tymal Mills, Topley’s replacement, is another possibility although he has not bowled competitively since August.

England (probable) 1 Jos Buttler (capt & wk), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Liam Livingstone, 6 Moeen Ali, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Chris Woakes / David Willey, 9 Chris Jordan, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood

Rashid Khan might have revenge on his mind after suffering a mauling during his last World Cup meeting with EnglandAFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan had an injury scare in the course of their warm-ups, when Rahmanullah Gurbaz was struck on the foot by Shaheen Shah Afridi during their warm-up against Pakistan, but he has since been cleared of a fracture. Head coach Jonathan Trott was giving little away on the eve of the game, but his squad appears to have a clean bill of health.

Afghanistan (probable) 1 Hazratullah Zazai, 2 Rahmanullah Gurbaz (wk), 3 Ibrahim Zadran, 4 Darwish Rasooli, 5 Najibullah Zadran, 6 Mohammad Nabi (capt), 7 Azmatullah Omarzai, 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Mujeeb Ur Rahman, 10 Naveen-ul-Haq, 11 Fazalhaq Farooqi

Pitch and conditions

The weather is likely to be good, and the pitch is likely to be bouncy and full of runs. What more could you ask for?

Stats and trivia

  • England and Afghanistan have faced each other on two previous occasions in T20Is, at the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka, and in the 2016 event in India four years later. England won both matches, but were made to sweat in Delhi, eventually winning by 15 runs, en route to the final.
  • The most recent of their four meetings in all internationals came at Old Trafford in the 2019 World Cup, a match made memorable by Eoin Morgan’s world-record haul of 17 sixes in his 148 from 71 balls.
  • Ben Stokes needs 25 runs to reach 500 in T20Is. He has yet to make a half-century in 37 appearances.

Quotes

“I think we’re a dangerous team who have players who can win games on their own and that’s a huge thing in T20 cricket.”
Jos Buttler is confident in the ability of his team-mates to seize the day

“Nowadays with the way that analysts, analysing games with regards to technology and that sort of stuff, I don’t think there’s much you can say that isn’t available.”
Jonathan Trott, Afghanistan’s head coach, plays down any suggestion that he’ll have an inside-track on his fellow countrymen