HEADINGLEY, June 29 (The Telegraph/WNP) How Eoin Morgan will wish Afghanistan’s players had been able to show quite as much fight as some of their fans.
The World Cup underdogs came agonisingly close to causing the upset of the tournament at Headingley on Saturday, but this nervy three-wicket Pakistan victory amid a backdrop of shocking brawls in the stands leaves the England captain in no doubt about the scale of his task now: lose against India on Sunday and his team’s fate will no longer be in their control.
For the first time since the start of the month, England does not occupy a semi-final spot. Instead it is Pakistan who sits fourth, continuing their resurgence after scraping over the line against the worst side in the competition. With only Bangladesh to face, it is now they who look most likely to reach the knockouts unless England can pull off victories against India and New Zealand.
It is a scenario that had seemed hugely improbable when Pakistan began their campaign with three defeats from their first four completed games, but as England’s magic touch seems to have deserted them, Sarfaraz Ahmed’s side are on a roll.
Yet after arguably the match of the tournament – one decided with just two balls remaining – it is the unedifying scenes off the pitch that will live longest in the memory.
— Sultan Shah (@SultanShah1) June 29, 2019
Clashes between both sets of fans had begun early in morning when a number of spectators were thrown out of the ground for fighting in the stands, only for the trouble to continue outside the stadium with steel barricades used as weapons during an ugly melee.
The ICC quickly vowed to take “appropriate action” against anyone involved, but worse was yet to come. As the match reached its climax and Pakistan closed in on their victory target, brawls started erupting in the stands once more with punches and objects thrown before stewards managed to intervene.
On Imad Wasim stroking the winning runs to the cover boundary, dozens of Pakistan fans then climbed the barriers and invaded the pitch. In shocking images that will serve as a major embarrassment to organisers, one of the Afghanistan players even seemed to be struck by a spectator. It was a horrible way for one of cricket’s most complicated relationships to play out.
While the on-field rivalry between these two sides is still in its infancy, geopolitical friction has caused tensions to tumble into the cricketing world in recent years.
Separated from Pakistan by one of the more porous international borders – until it was recently tightened – Afghanistan owe much to their neighbours for aiding their rise to cricket’s top seat. Most members of the current Afghanistan team learned their cricketing trade in Pakistan and their captain Gulbadin Naib only became aware of his true nationality aged 11, having grown up as a refugee in the neighbouring country.
It was a relationship encouraged by Pakistan’s cricketing powers until India complicated the issue by muscling their way in and strengthening their own connections with Afghanistan in recent years. The fallout continues today.
Ties have been severed to such an extent that Afghanistan’s players have been told to stop living and playing cricket in Pakistan, while they have also been ordered not to give Pakistan too much credit for their sporting development. It is a messy situation by any standards, but few would have predicted the disagreement would turn physical in such ugly fashion under glorious blue skies in Leeds.
Those scenes could scarcely have contrasted more starkly with what took place on the pitch, where a thunderous contest was played out in fearsome, but good-natured fashion.
Afghanistan will depart Leeds ruing what might have been. Looking the most likely winners for much of the second half, they let the chance of a first World Cup victory over a Test-playing nation slip through their fingers at the death.
The excellent bowling of Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, who took two wickets apiece, had swung the match in the underdogs’ favour as Pakistan’s required rate crept up with every passing over.
But then came the pivotal moment. Just as it appeared to be slipping away from them, Imad struck the 46th over for 18 runs. It was the most lucrative over of the entire match and the damage was done.
From needing 48 off 30 balls, Pakistan reduced their task to just six off the final over – a mission they accomplished.
Fresh from a match-winning three wickets against New Zealand earlier in the week, Shaheen Afridi had earlier starred with the ball again, cleaning up Naib and Hashmatullah Shahidi in consecutive balls on his way to figures of four for 47. Afghanistan’s 227 for nine always looked short, but no one foresaw how close it would eventually be.