New Zealand brace for another trial by spin - 5 minutes read
The venue for the New Zealand-Afghanistan clash elicits as much intrigue as the match-up itself. Taunton, once the home of Ian Botham, Viv Richards, Joel Garner, the late Peter Roebuck, and in more recent times Marcus Trescothick and Jos Buttler, is set to make an international return since the India-Sri Lanka clash in 1999, remembered best for Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid' 318-run second wicket stand. If 373 was possible back then, is 500 on the cards now?
It's unlikely either team would allow such fantasies to take hold of them, and in any case the bowling attacks on view aren't comparable to the pedestrian one that conceded 373. Afghanistan quicks took a while to find their lengths against Sri Lanka in helpful conditions in Cardiff, but were a handful once they did. The spinners, especially Mohammad Nabi, showed that the ball can do in plenty the air, even before it pitches and turns, to deceive batsmen. With New Zealand's gung-ho approach against spin in their narrow win over Bangladesh seemingly stemming from insecurity, Afghanistan would be salivating at the prospect of having a crack at them.
New Zealand themselves have a wily operator in Mitchell Santner but they'd be keener to unleash a combination of swing and searing pace at their opponents' top order that has so far shown a frailty that could make life against top sides miserable. Najibullah Zadran apart, not one of their top seven has looked convincing so far, not even their leading scorer since the start of 2015, Rahmat Shah. No wonder they find themselves at the bottom of the pile, just above South Africa.
Much like the Afghanistan spinners took the pitch out of the equation in Cardiff, New Zealand quicks were equally adept in adjusting to the slowish Oval surface. A big part of their plan B when the pitch refused to assist them was Lockie Ferguson's short ball barrage with a leg gully in place. The temptation to employ that tactic may be even greater against a brittle Afghanistan batting unit.
Afghanistan LLWLW (completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand WWWWW
In the spotlight
Since returning to the side in January this year, James Neesham has looked very good. But the problem is that he has squandered both opportunities of steering New Zealand home from a tight corner in this period, once against India in Wellington when he was run-out in absent minded manner, and against Bangladesh last match when he cracked under pressure, lofting Mosaddek Hossain straight to long-off when singles could have done the trick. New Zealand need their premier allrounder to show better match-awareness, especially if they are to include Ish Sodhi, which will mean playing a batsman short.
Wickets have dried up for Mujeeb ur Rahman lately. He has taken just nine in the last ten matches as compared to the 43 in 22 before that. Usually their designated opening bowler, the match against Sri Lanka was only the fourth time Mujeeb did not take the new ball in his ODI career, and the conditions had plenty to do with that. He was also taken apart for 45 in just 4.5 overs by Australia in the tournament opener. Conditions are unlikely to be favourable in Taunton either but Afghanistan might just persist with him given the opposition they are up against and hope that he finds form.
Kane Williamson had said that Tim Southee was recovering well but it's unlikely he'd make the XI now, with Matt Henry bowling as well as he is. New Zealand, however, may consider the inclusion of Sodhi depending on conditions in Taunton. If that happens, Colin de Grandhomme will most likely have to make way.
New Zealand (probable): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Colin Munro, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Tom Latham (wk), 6 James Neesham, 7 Colin de Grandhomme/Ish Sodhi, 8 Mitchell Santner, 9 Matt Henry, 10 Lockie Ferguson, 11 Trent Boult
Afghanistan have lost Mohammad Shahzad to injury and are fretting over the fitness of Asghar Afghan as well. They have another decision to make outside of that: roping in an extra seamer in Aftab Alam instead of Mujeeb, something they probably rued in Cardiff.
Afghanistan (probable): 1 Hazratullah Zazai, 2 Rahmat Shah, 3 Hashmatullah Shahidi, 4 Najibullah Zadran, 5 Mohammad Nabi, 6 Gulbadin Naib (capt) 7 Ikram Alikhil (wk), 8 Rashid Khan, 9 Mujeeb-ur-Rahman/Aftab Alam , 10 Hamid Hassan, 11 Dawlat Zadran
Pitch and conditions
Generally a high scoring venue with particularly short straight boundaries, Taunton has seen an average first innings score of 299 in the last five completed List-A matches. Teams batting first have won three of these, and pacers have tended to the bulk of the bowling across those ten innings, delivering 287.2 overs as opposed to just 102 from the spinners. Naturally then more wickets have fallen to pace but its also been marginally more expensive - 6.4 runs per over as compared to the 5.8 conceded by spin. With a couple of morning showers expected, bowling first might be the best bet.
Nearly 50% of Ferguson's deliveries are either short or back of a length or short and Afghanistan's batsmen don't really like that. Even the best of them - Rahmat (average 12.5), Hashmatullah Shahidi (14.6) and Najibullah (16) - have been susceptible.
Williamson has faced spin bowling in eight innings this year and he has lost his wicket to them six times. Enough there to excite Rashid Khan, Nabi and Mujeeb.