ACC Trophy Elite 2008
Afghanistan v Hong Kong

Afghanistan v Hong Kong: Guts v Guile, Punchers v Counter-punchers. It was always going to be close.

Hong Kong in the end, literally won by inches, Hong Kong's Ilyas Gul catching Afghanistan's Hasti Gul's reverse sweep right on the verge of the extra-cover boundary. Hong Kong thus move forward to their second successive ACC Trophy Final. They will be up against the winners last time around UAE, who beat Nepal in the other semi-final.

Hong Kong's Ilyas Gul takes the catch that wins the match

Both teams went into this match with much to prove. Afghanistan are the young pretenders bursting with talent, Hong Kong a vastly more experienced side who have been long ensconced at the top of the Associate tree. A win would be tremendous validation of both teams – relative to each other in Asia. There is still a long way to go for them up the ICC global rankings.

Hong Kong's top order has struggled all tournament and today was no exception. Hasti Gul (3-23) and Dawlat Ahmadzai (1-9) tore through Hong Kong with some exceptional seam-bowling. Aided by the pitch which made a few balls keep low early on they may have been, but if you're moving the ball at pace, both ways, you deserve your wickets. Hong Kong were 25 for 5, Hamid Hassan beating Ali Shkawat for pace, in the 14th over.

Hasti Gul

Off-spinner Mohammad Nabi and leg-spinner Samiullah Shenwari smothered any chance of Hong Kong putting up a score with 19 overs between them for just 32 runs. Nobody all day read Nabi's doosra, James Atkinson (26 off 59) played him better than anybody, but there were times he too was left groping. Atkinson's and Nabi's was a terrific duel.

Nowroz Mangal trapped Atkinson with an off-break that spun and skidded through to have Hong Kong at 76 for 7 in the 31st over. Hamid Hassan was brought back straight after – Irfan Ahmed edged his first ball through the vacant first slip.

Afghanistan were much more astute with their bowling-changes and field placings than on other days and really demonstrated how much they improved in that respect compared to previous matches in the tournament.

"If we can get to 150 we're in with a chance," said Hong Kong's coach Aftab Habib the ball before Irfan Ahmed was stumped, to leave Hong Kong at 107 for 8 in the 37th over. Some enterprising play from Moner Ahmed, Najeeb Amar and Roy Lamsam took Hong Kong to 154. Definitely defendable.

Hong Kong's spinners were going to have to do it for their team. Tie up the batsmen, get them all out. Hong Kong opened with spin from the Pavilion End, and Afghanistan's batsmen surprisingly forsook all glory-seeking hits. Hong Kong's sole paceman Irfan Ahmed can never be overlooked however and he bowled very well today, with pace and control. Irfan didn't move the ball in the afternoon off the seam as much as the Afghan new-ball bowlers did this morning but he too kept the ball in the right areas and by inducing Afghanistan's captain to play on, in the third over for 1, he put Afghanistan under considerable pressure.

Pressure compounded by the dismissal of Karim Sadiq leg-before, sweeping, in the 13th over. Afghanistan were 28 for 2 then. 155 not so near at this stage.

Raees Ahmadzai's virtues are often overlooked in his coach's quest for boundaries, too often he has to play the role of rescuer of the team's fortunes after the batsmen ahead of him have holed out. Today he came in at 4 with the score on 28 in the 9th over with a chance to irrevocably shape the course of the match. He has sound shot selection, fine technique, reads the game well and is not without the ability to hit boundaries. A square-cut of awesome power in the 24th over off Moner Ahmed asserted his team's claims to victory and two more boundaries in subsequent overs, class strokes all, put Afghanistan right back on course.

Najeeb Amar

At the other end the left-hander Ahmad Shah Ahmadi interspersed good strokes with a couple of relatively easy chances. Hong Kong got him the third time though, caught at slip off Najeeb Amar for 36. 73 for 3 soon became 78 for 4 when Raees played down the wrong line to a full-pitched delivery from Irfan Ahmed. Huge wicket. Hong Kong were right back in the game.  

All of Afghanistan's batsmen have been in the runs this tournament, but Hong Kong's spinners – old lags Moner Ahmed, Ilyas Gul and Najeeb Amar plus old head on young shoulders Nadeem Ahmed – have spent their playing lives defending small totals. Floaters, sliders, intermittent fast balls – what they call in baseball 'junk'- are the repertoire of Moner, Ilyas and Najeeb. Nadeem is more classically correct, with a beautiful action, and the ability to keep the ball pretty much on a piece of string.

Daulat Ahmadzai and Samiullah Shenwari, castled by Ilyas Gul

Afghanistan always struggle against spin. They struggled against this quartet. Wickets fell in rapid succession, with the batsmen unable to read the turn or handle the skiddy bounce. Only Hasti Gul offered any resistance, but it was too little, too late. His team had given up long before he did.

Hong Kong celebrated gloriously, they knew how much this game meant. Potential Asia Cup qualification should there be no other ACC Trophy Elites, prior to the 2010 Asia Cup. Hong Kong know what they can do and do it. Afghanistan still do not do their talent justice. "The players couldn't hande the pressure, they were thinking of the Asia Cup," said Afghanistan's coach Taj Malik afterwards. The reality was they couldn't handle spin and haven't been thinking of that aspect of their game for a number of years.

Hong Kong's coach Aftab Habib hoisted by his team

Afghanistan v Hong Kong at Kinrara Oval
Hong Kong won the toss and chose to bat
Hong Kong: 154 for 9 off 50 overs (H. Gul 3-23)
Afghanistan: 129 off 43.4 overs (A. Ahmadi 36; I. Gul 3-26, N. Ahmed 3-14)
Man of the Match: Najeeb Amar (Hong Kong)

Pictures: Peter Lim

Filed August 1 2008