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Bruised Afghanistan battle to stay alive

Heading into the penultimate round of the World Cup Qualifier group stage, favourites Afghanistan are hanging onto their dreams of progressing to the World Cup by a thread, whilst Papua New Guinea find themselves in something of a quandary. Both the cruelties and the absurdities of the tournament format are likely to be exposed in this next round of matches.

West Indies vs Ireland at Harare Sports Club

After a dubious showing in the warm-ups, the West Indies’ “alright on the night” approach has paid off thus far, with eventually comfortable if not entirely convincing wins over the UAE and Papua New Guinea under their belts. A win against Ireland on Saturday would seal their place in the Super Sixes.

The European country will likely present a sterner challenge, however, with essentially the same top order batsmen who helped the side to chase down 307 against the Windies at the 2015 World Cup – all looking in fine nick and Ireland still unbeaten on their tour. Whichever side emerges on top will fancy their chances of topping Group A and carrying four points through to the Super Sixes.

Netherlands vs Papua New Guinea at Old Hararians

After stumbling out of the blocks with consecutive heavy defeats against Ireland and the UAE, the Netherlands need to beat PNG convincingly in their next group stage match and then upset the Windies in their last game to stand a chance of progressing. Whilst the Windies batting has improved drastically since the warm-ups, the Dutch have gone in the opposite direction, with reckless running and brainless shot selection leaving them needing everything to go their way from here on. Presumably playing in their favour, however, will be the fact that their opponents will also be hoping the Netherlands pull it off.

With three straight losses, PNG are already out of contention for a Super Six place, but the vagaries of the format mean their chances of retaining ODI status now depend heavily on Netherlands’ success. While PNG have nothing left to gain from beating the Dutch, they do stand to gain by losing to them, and avoiding a situation where there are no ODI slots to be won in the losers’ play-offs. Given the situation in the tournament, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where PNG retain ODI status should they beat the Netherlands tomorrow. It is to be hoped this perverse mal-incentivisation does not affect their performance tomorrow, despite how much they stand to lose by winning.

Afghanistan vs Nepal at Queens Sports Club

The calculations are rather more straightforward down in Bulawayo, where Afghanistan and Nepal both need to win to keep their hopes of progression alive. Afghanistan, having lost three matches in a row as well as their keeper-opener Mohammad Shahzad to suspension, not only need to win this match, but also hope Hong Kong lose their next two games to set up a three-way tie on two points for third place – which would most likely see Afghanistan through on net run rate. With Afghanistan’s batting even more rickety than normal and Rashid Khan somewhat off the boil, Nepal may just smell blood in the water.

Nepal are likewise winless so far this tournament, but have two games in hand. A win over Afghanistan would set up a probable winner-takes-all showdown with Hong Kong on Monday for a Super Six spot, but a loss on Saturday will, given their already dire net run rate, effectively put Nepal out of contention too. Nepal’s batting has looked no better than their opponents so far in the tournament,. Despite scoring a creditable 264-8 against Zimbabwe, they have continued to rely on skipper Paras Khadka to do the bulk of the scoring, and are coming up against a high-quality, if under-performing attack.

Zimbabwe vs Hong Kong at Bulawayo Athletics Club

Meanwhile at BAC, Zimbabwe will have a chance to secure their spot in the Super Sixes when they take on Hong Kong. Though the hosts are currently two-from-two having comfortably bested Nepal and clinched a thriller against Afghanistan, they suffered a blow yesterday with news that left arm seamer Brian Vitori, who played a key role in that match, has again been suspended from bowling after problems with his action resurfaced. The all-round form of Brendan Taylor and Sikander Raza will be of some comfort and Zimbabwe’s seam bowling reserves are somewhat deeper these days.

Nonetheless the hosts would do well to be wary of Hong Kong, who are coming off the back of drubbing the pre-tournament favourites Afghanistan and look to be finding their feet at just the right time. Hong Kong have the bowlers in Ehsan Khan and Nadeem Ahmed to exploit Zimbabwe’s continued vulnerability to spin, and batsmen in Babar Hayat, Anshuman Rath and Nizakat Khan who can score big if they are allowed to settle.

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