Afghanistan 189-5 (20 ovs) (R Gurbaz 53, N Zadran 42; J Little 2-29) beat Ireland 167-9 (20 ovs) (George Dockrell 58no, Fionn Hand 36; Naveeb-ul-Haq 3-38) by 22 runs.
A near-game changing eight-wicket partnership of 74 between George Dockrell and debutant Fionn Hand, who notched a record score for a number nine on debut, gave Ireland a brief hope of a famous, come-from-behind victory in Stormont on Friday.
But ultimately, for the majority of the game the best version of Afghanistan was on display as they cruised to a 22-run victory over Ireland to narrow the gap in their T20 international series with Ireland to 2-1.
They’re a different side when their spinners have runs on the board and can squeeze against a side under pressure. After being asked to bat at the toss and putting on 189 for five – definitely an above par score at Stormont – before reducing Ireland to 36 for four in the powerplay, a counterattack against Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahmann and Mohammad Nabi never looked like being successful despite the late fireworks.
Afghanistan’s approach with the bat was better thought out and more reminiscent of victorious teams at this venue than previous games. An element of patience at the start was seen on what tends to be a pitch on the slower side, the visitors recognising the value of set batters and wickets in hand over a high run rate from the off. Openers Rahmanullah Gurbaz and the returning Hazratullah Zazai put on 90 for the first wicket, Ireland failing to find a breakthrough until Josh Little bounced out Gurbaz.
Afghanistan’s ‘keeper had taken a liking to debutant Fionn Hand up to that point, punishing a wide delivery outside off before launching a slower ball over the sight screen. To be fair to the Clontarf bowler, he did return to dismiss Zazai for an unusually circumspect 39 off 40 balls later in the piece.
Where Afghanistan won the game was at the death. The two Zadrans – Ibrahim and Najibullah – found the boundary almost at will. The latter dispatched both Graham Hume – another T20I debutant – and Mark Adair over the ropes when they missed attempted wide yorkers. His final strike rate was a phenomenal 233 as he notched 42 off just 18 deliveries.
In response to Afghanistan’s imposing total, both Paul Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie departed, mistiming full-tosses into the offside, the latter via a stunning, leaping grab from Rashid. Lorcan Tucker continued his decent form at three by launching Fazalhaq Farooqi over square leg but ultimately picked out Naveen-ul-Haq who took a good catch at cow corner off Mujeeb, albeit he did drop two other chances as Afghanistan’s fielding continued to be a significant weakness.
Wickets fell regularly but Hand, playing with house money coming in with the score at 85 for seven, had some fun in his first Ireland innings, finding boundaries over extra cover and long off.
Dockrell at the other end was at his imperious best when striking the ball down the ground, still finding that area when Afghanistan dug the ball into the pitch but despite a maiden T20 international 50, he couldn’t score an unlikely 29 off the final over as Ireland fell 22 runs short.