Naveen-ul-Haq, the Afghanistan Under-19 captain, was grumpy as he faced the media after going down by six wickets to Australia in the semi-final. He was angry on the field, often struggling to hide his frustration of being unable to control proceedings when Jack Edwards charged to a bruising half-century in a small chase. As he walked off the field, he looked upset and dejected.
He didn’t quite hold back when he saw Edwards dropped early in the innings off his bowling. This wasn’t the captain who looked ice cool after Afghanistan overcame Sri Lanka and Pakistan in tense chases. The disappointment of having failed in a semi-final was evident. But in that, perhaps, he may have given a peek into Afghanistan’s thinking – that their “we’re here to win” attitude was legit.
This frustration boiled over when he shot back: “India and Pakistan are better sides than Australia. That much I can tell you.” He didn’t explain why he felt that way, but hinted that Australia’s approach against his spinners, towards the later stages of the innings after Jack Edwards fell for 72, may have been the reason.
After Naveen walked away, the ever-smiling Australian captain Jason Sangha was asked about his opposite number’s response. “It doesn’t bother us, we are through to the final and that is all we care about,” he said. “We actually thought the Afghanistan team were quite good. Cricket is a funny game. It doesn’t matter what has happened [in the past], it all depends on who is the better team on the day. What they feel doesn’t bother us at all. They had a number of good spinners and will hopefully be successful for the future.”
This measured response set the tone for Sangha’s interaction as he discussed Australia’s campaign, one that started with their batsmen being bounced out by India before they eased into the tournament by walloping Zimbabwe and Papua New Guinea. Then, they “got out of jail” against England in a dramatic quarter-final in Queenstown.
“It was one of the best days in my cricketing life,” he said of the victory over England. “It was fantastic to see big players stand up under pressure. Every game, I knew we were closer and closer to our best game of cricket. Once we kept ticking off every run in the game we just had, we knew we were getting closer and closer – once you hit that winning run it just hits you that you are in the final. We might not get a chance of playing in the final again, so really looking forward to it.”
One of the aspects that pleased Sangha was Australia’s approach against Afghanistan’s mystery spinners Mujeeb Zadran and Zahir Khan. In focusing on those two, Sangha was asked if they may have taken the third spinner – Qais Ahmed – a touch lightly. The answer was a reflection of the confidence and the “fearless approach'”he wanted his players to adopt.
“We played the spinners really well,” Sangha said. “All three of them bowled well. We saw how destructive they can be, as we saw against New Zealand. I thought our plans were really good. Jack Edwards played his natural game. If anything was in his slot, he just went for it. My game was a lot different to that, everyone had their own plans to spinners and I thought it worked really well. We did have a look at footage from their spinners, but it’s actually different to seeing them on video to real life.”
Sangha hopes his team can carry this positive approach into the final. “Definitely we have been challenged in every scenario and we have come up on top,” he said. “We have overcome the Afghanistan spinners so that will give us confidence whoever we meet in the final. Jack played really well at the top and Nathan McSweeney and Param (Uppal) did exceptionally well on a tough pitch to get themselves in.
“We have had different challenges and scenarios at the World Cup – despite the scenario that we are in the final, we have had the practice in a real game sense and to be able to combat that scenario has been really satisfying. We are really looking forward to what the final brings, regardless if it’s India or Pakistan.”
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.