Australia halt Afghanistan’s run in semis

Australia 182 for 4 (Edwards 72, Uppal 33*) beat Afghanistan 181 (Ikram 80, Merlo 4-24) by six wickets

What was to be a spicy contest against spin turned into a no-contest with Australia steamrolling Afghanistan by six wickets at Hagley Oval to a secure a berth in Saturday’s final in Mount Manganui. They will play the winner of Tuesday’s second semi-final between India and Pakistan.

Afghanistan’s decision to bat first backfired, as they were bowled out for 181 with medium pacer Jonathan Merlo picking four wickets. With their only hope of causing a stir in the Australian camp hinging on their mystery spinners, they unleashed Mujeeb Zadran, who on Sunday bagged a 625,000 USD IPL contract, with the new ball. This move was met with a spectacular counter-attack from opener Jack Edwards, who smashed him for 14 off the eighth over on his way to a 40-ball half-century to deflate Afghanistan.

Australia lost Jason Sangha, the captain, and Merlo to Qais Ahmed’s legspin, but Edwards’ turbo-charge meant Australia were far too ahead to panic. Param Uppal and Nathan McSweeney batted with admirable maturity and composure on the face of Afghanistan’s choke-by-spin tactic to eventually come through courtesy an unbroken 53-run stand. Uppal, who was the more dominant of the two, showcased his penchant for the pull shot in his unbeaten 32. The target was run down quite comfortably in 37.3 overs.

While the batsmen delivered the box office stuff, it was their new-ball pair of Zak Evans and Ryan Hadeley who caused early trouble for Afghanistan. Evans, who hit the deck hard, profited from the bounce on offer as he had Ibrahim Zadran top-edge a swirler to Hadley at fine leg to breakthrough early. Rahmatullah Gurbaz, who was reprieved on six when Evans put down a chance off his own bowling, built slowly in Ikram Ali Khil’s company.

Legspinner Lloyd Pope, who became an overnight star after his heroics against England, was welcomed into the attack 16th over with a fierce sweep to deep square leg by Ikram. This was Afghanistan’s first sign of looking to up the tempo, but the surge wouldn’t last long as Gurbaz would become the first of three Afghanistan batsmen to be snuffed out down the leg side. This was clearly a case of Australia’s seam bowlers troubling the batsmen with lack of pace.

Gurbaz was the most unfortunate, playing a neat tickle down leg to Baxter Holt. Bahir Shah would be tangled looking to pull a short ball that stopped on him and brushed his glove to Holt while Qais Ahmed got some bat after completing an attempted pull off a short ball to the wicketkeeper again. In between these dismissals, however, Ikram showed excellent footwork, particularly off Pope to bring up a fighting half-century.

Confident and composed at the crease, he was equally adept at picking Will Sutherland’s slower variations and seemed set to bat through before an attempt to launch with 10 overs remaining led to his eventual downfall. From 146 for 7, the last three batsmen swung their way through till Evans brought an end to the innings by dismissing Zahir Khan who was caught by substitute Austin Waugh at mid-off.

Afghanistan started poorly with the ball as Darwish Rasooli put down a sitter at cover point to reprieve Edwards in the fourth over. That would be the trigger for him to launch into the bowlers, particularly Zadran. Edwards’ fire blended well with captain Sangha’s ice as the two went about milking the runs during the course of a 79-run second-wicket stand. Sangha, in an attempt to drive on the up, chipped a simple return catch to Ahmed to give Afghanistan a sniff. When Merlo and Edwards fell within 4 runs off each other, Australia were in strife at 129 for 4. Suddenly, the ball was turning, bouncing and beating the batsmen, there were regular appeals for stumping and a passage of play where runs were hard to come by.

Once Ahmed was seen off expertly, the rest of the target turned into a cruise that gave Australia an opportunity to aim at a fourth Under-19 World Cup crown.

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