In front of hundreds of their adoring fans, their Board President and the head of their national Olympic Association, Afghanistan stormed to a six-wicket victory over defending champions Nepal in the semi-final of the ACC U-19 Elite Cup. “We played with great heart and with great brain,” said Afghanistan captain Shir Shirzai afterwards.

Joy unconfined as Afghanistan beat Nepal in the semi-final

It used to be Nepal – winners of all ACC U-19 competitions since 2000 and unbeaten at ACC U-19 level during all that time – who would win matches by simply outsmarting the opposition. First Hong Kong and now Afghanistan, in this year’s ACC U-19 Elite Cup have outplayed, outfought and out-thought them.

Nepal may have won the toss and batted, looking to put pressure on an Afghanistan team in the afternoon with their trademark tight bowling and fielding but that pressure depended on them putting enough runs on the board. They did start fast – 23 runs were scored off the first 2 overs but they had also lost two wickets. The Nepal coach Roy Dias rejigged the batting order, promoting Prithu Baskota and Anil Mandal up the order but the only player who truly came off for Nepal today was Baskota.

Clouds were thick over the ground in the morning, and halfway through the Nepal innings, thunder started to rumble in the distance to join the pounding Afghan drums. Heavy rain there was in other parts of Kuwait at the same time but only a few drops of rain fell on the KOC grounds. "I have never seen rain in April in more than 10 years," said one local citizen. The weather changes, so too even Nepal.

Afghanistan’s Mir Pirwani bowls to Nepal’s Prithu Baskota

The captain of the Nepal U-17s that won the ACC U-17 Elite Cup in February, Baskota was the one player who not only held the Nepal innings together he played some superb orthodox attacking strokes, one of them a six over extra cover in the batting power-play, the shot of the day. He hit two more sixes until he was stumped off Afghanistan’s the wily left-arm spinner Hamza Hotak (one of wicket-keeper Murad Ali’s four victims of the day) and looks to be a real player of the future.

Nepal’s Prithu Baskota

“You don’t need to be big to be a power-hitter,” says Roy Dias, “Prithu is a good example of that.” Had Baskota (81 off 160) had a little more support from the other batsmen, Nepal could have posted a challenging total. But it was Afghanistan doing the Nepal act today, and they really bowled and fielded well, with their spinners doing a terrific job.

The crowd play a part in all of Afghanistan’s matches, Nepal’s fans back home are as quick to turn on their players as they are to support, Afghani fans have nothing but undiluted love for the team. And a fistful of dollars too. Asgher Hotak’s fine catch over his head to dismiss Sagar Khadka at square leg, was rewarded with a $100 bill from a fan in the crowd as Asgher lapped up the fans’ adulation. “I gave the bowler 50-50,” said Asgher afterwards.

Nepal really didn't put enough runs on the board with 186. Afghanistan were under a little bit of pressure at 54-3 in the 16th over, Iqbal Maliki, Noor ul Haq (‘The Rock’) and captain Shir Shirzai back in the pavilion, grinders all, but Aimal Wafa and Asgher Hotak held firm and as the game progressed played an impressive range of shots, always keeping their team up with the required run-rate.

Afghanistan's captain Shir Shirzai plays to leg, Nepal's Sunny Pun looks on

In the old days the Afghanistan team would have gone for their shots and been out for 150 in the 30th over, today – these days – they hold back, play with maturity and play as many well calibrated shots as possible. Aimal Wafa is a shining example. ‘Wafty Wafa’ he used to be called in the last U-19 ACC Elite Cup when he was only a sucker ball away from dismissal. Today he played each ball on its merits, kept his head down, lifted the ball only at minimal risk and rightly walked away with the Man of the Match award.

Aimal Wafa on the shoulders of his fans

The mantle has well and truly passed.

Afghanistan play Hong Kong in the Final at KOC Hubara on Friday, Hong Kong winning a nervy contest with Qatar in the other semi-final.

ACC U-19 Elite Cup 2009
Afghanistan v Nepal at KOC Unity
Nepal won the toss and chose to bat
Nepal: 186 for 8 off 50 overs (P.Baskota 81, G.Malla 31; H.Hotak 3-18)
Afghanistan: 190 for 4 off 47.1 overs (A.Wafa 61*, A.Hotak 47*)
Man of the Match: Aimal Wafa (Afghanistan)


ACC U-19 Elite Cup 2009

Pictures courtesy Tahir Khan

Filed April 29, 2009