ICC World Cup Qualifier 2018 group stage wrap: From wobbles and wins for West Indies to Afghanistan's escape act
At a quarter to five on Monday afternoon a peal of thunder across the Harare Sports club signalled the end of the Group Stages of the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier, and to a dramatic final days' cricket where the fates of ten nations had hung in the balance, flapping madly back and forth like a flag in, well, in a thunderstorm. So indeed they had all week.
The rain came about twenty minutes too late to hand the Netherlands a famous victory over the Windies, or to save them from the ignominy of a trip down to Kwekwe to contest the loser's playoffs. The weather held long enough in Bulawayo, however, to allow Nepal to see out a win over Hong Kong and keep their ODI hopes alive. In the process Nepal saved a woefully under-performing Afghan side, cheering from the sidelines, from suffering the same fate as the Dutch.
Afghanistan stumble into the Super Sixes off the back of a single win, and like the UAE, who were excused the consequences of a hammering at the hands of Ireland in their final game at Old Hararians by the Netherlands' reckless running, Evin Lewis' rocket arm, and the timing of the deluge down the road at HSC, will have a mountain to climb without any points to carry through.
The Windies, with an unblemished but far from perfect run of four wins from four, stroll into the next round as comfortable favourites on four points, with hosts Zimbabwe and erstwhile dark horses Scotland close behind with three each thanks to a dramatic tie in their final group match down in Bulawayo, and Ireland a point behind with an impressive but likely useless net run rate advantage.
Looking at the points table may suggest the story of Group A has been that of a triumphal march for the Windies and a calamity for the Dutch, the points are only a partial reflection of reality. In truth the Netherlands' failure was in large part self-inflicted, and the Windies have had their share of wobbles along the way. The Irish, who came out in second place in the end, had had the best of the first half of both innings in their match against them, Rovman Powell's century from number eight doing a salvage job for the Windies after a top-order collapse and Ed Joyce briefly threatening to marshal a successful chase. In their final match against the Dutch, the Windies arguably had the best of only the first and last seven or so overs of the game, and before Lewis' remarkable intervention looked set to drop two points.
The Netherlands' consequent collapse was typical of their tournament until then, with Barresi's the only one of six run outs across the tournament where the batsman might be excused some portion of blame. Their opening match against Ireland set the tone of the tournament for both sides, Ireland's top-order taking control of the game but the lower-middle order failing to fully capitalise, and the Netherlands batting wilting under pressure. The Netherlands' batting would go from bad to worse, going to pieces on a tired track in the face of the UAE with Rohan Mustafa, young Chirag Suri marshalling the modest chase for the Emiratis to put the Dutch all-but out of contention after two games.
Ireland's opening pair of Paul Stirling and captain William Porterfield's continued runs of form would prove enough to see them through to the Super Sixes, with a Boyd Rankin five-fer against the UAE ensuring they did so with a healthy run rate, though with just two points in the bag they will be starting from the middle of the pack. The Emirates meanwhile take no points through and their demolition at the hands of the Irish leaves them with a woeful net run rate, and a run to the final looking rather fanciful at this point.
Papua New Guinea finished bottom of the table having failed to win a game, but nonetheless have done themselves considerable credit in Harare. Tony Ura's phenomenal 150 against Ireland will doubtless live long in memory, and the Windies will not soon forget the scare they had when the Papuan's had them four down for 58 chasing 200. Perhaps the greatest testament to the Barramundi's spirit was their performance against the Netherlands, in a match which other sides might have been tempted to throw " the vagaries of the format dictating that the Netherlands reaching the Super Sixes would do PNG more good than taking two points in the group stage.
The Papuans came out fighting regardless, and as the stuttering Dutch top order again stumbled out of the blocks they looked well on top for much of the first innings, only a counter-attacking half-century from Sikander Zulfiqar saving Dutch the blushes. In the end Afghanistan's good fortune ensured that PNG still have a shot at saving their ODI status, with one slot left on offer in losers' classification.
Stand-out player: Jason Holder
The Windies skipper was the difference time and again whenever his side found themselves under the pump. A five-wicket haul against the UAE ensured the Emiratis' chase would be creditable but ultimately unsuccessful, a fifty down the order and a brace of wickets would hold off the Irish, an unbeaten 99 saw his side to victory when the top order stumbled against PNG, and a five over spell that went for just 18 runs kept the Netherlands in check long enough for the pressure to precipitate implosion, and the rain to do the rest.
Key Moment: The Windies' Evin Lewis tearing in off the rope for a one-handed pick-up-and-throw, cartwheeling middle stump and breaking the 113-run partnership between Wesley Barresi and Ryan ten Doeschate that looked set to see the Dutch to a famous and tournament-salvaging win. A Dutch collapse ensued just ahead of the storm that would wash the Netherlands out of the tournament and see the UAE through to the Super Sixes, ODI status intact.
If the points table in Group A perhaps is a little misleading, the standings in Group B tell a frank and faithful story " that of a lucky escape for an Afghan side in shambles, a breathless battle at the bottom of the table between Hong Kong and Nepal. And Scotland and Zimbabwe looking a class apart.
Afghanistan were quick to give up the title of favourites for the tournament. With skipper Ashgar Stanikzai sidelined with appendicitis, their first match of the tournament under Rashid Khan saw them comfortably beaten by Scotland, Calum Macleod's third 150-plus ODI score seeing the Scots to a seven-wicket win. Scotland would continue unbeaten throughout the group stages, whilst Afghanistan would slide to a final over defeat against Zimbabwe and then collapse to a 30-run DLS defeat against Hong Kong.
Khan himself seemed to suffer under the pressure of captaincy, picking up just two wickets across the four games. And without repeated rescue-jobs by Najibullah Zadran and Mohammad Nabi in the middle order, the Afghans would have struggled to pass 150 all tournament. Their nervy win in their last match against Nepal would prove enough to see them scrape through on net run rate, but carrying through neither points nor confidence to the Super Sixes. Their World Cup hopes dangle by a thread.
Scotland, meanwhile, followed up with two more wins on the trot, their rotating pace contingent skittling Hong Kong and Nepal for 91 and 149 respectively. Though both Hong Kong and Nepal fought back admirably with the ball, both see the net run rates plummet in defeat.
The Scots' perfect record would be spoiled only in their final game against hosts Zimbabwe, who likewise went into their last match undefeated. So both would remain, as Michael Leask's heroics with the tail at Queens Sports Club were enough to equal Zimbabwe's 210-run total, but not surpass it.
With Safyaan Sharif's maiden five-wicket haul doing the damage in the Zimbabwe innings, Scotland looked to have four Super Six points in the bag, but the hosts would chip away with regular wickets, and by the time Leask came to the crease his side were six down and still 63 runs short. A run-a-ball 28 kept them in touch with the chase, but the tail could not stay with him. With 12 needed off the final two overs and two wickets in hand, the previously becalmed Mark Watt took Tendai Chatara for ten in the 49th only to lose his wicket on the last ball of the over. A wide first up from Blessing Muzarabani tied the scores, and an edge through to Taylor on the next tied the match.
At the same time at the Bulawayo Athletic Club, Nepal would save their ODI hopes, and Afghanistan from a group stage exit, with a low-scoring win over Hong Kong. Two teenagers would emerge the heroes for Nepal, 17-year-old leggie Sandeep Lamichanne conceding just 17 runs from his ten overs and claiming three wickets, including the key scalp of Anshuman Rath, whilst 15 year-old Rohit Kumar Paudel would first halt a collapse and then close out the win with ten overs, finishing unbeaten on 48.
On the sidelines, the Afghans applauded every run, with Nepal's win ensuring a three-way tie on two points between themselves, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. The net run rate spreadsheets would dictate Afghanistan progress, leaving an ODI spot for the PNG, Nepal and Hong Kong to fight for, and the margin of Nepal's win would save them from a trip to Kwekwe to face the Dutch. Hong Kong will go in their place, and need to first beat the Netherlands and then win the seventh-place play off to secure their place at the ODI table. Should they fail in either game, the victor of PNG and Nepal's match will take that prize.
Stand-out player: Sikander Raza
Zimbabwe's off-spinning all-rounder has been in flying form throughout. A breakneck 123 and three wickets against Nepal won him the first of two consecutive man-of-the-match awards, the next coming for his 60 runs against Afghanistan and three crucial wickets that broke the Afghan chase. Three more against Hong Kong would keep the host's unbeaten run on track, and it is telling that the only match where he was kept relatively quiet is the one one match Zimbabwe could not quite win.
Key Moment: Nepal's young leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichanne drawing Anshuman Rath forward and beating the bat with Anil Sah whipping off the bails as Hong Kong's slump begins. The turning point in the game that would keep Nepal's hopes of ODI status alive (as well as those of Papua New Guinea), while saving pre-tournament favourites Afghanistan from the ignominy of a group stage exit.