Afghanistan and Oman claimed the final two places at next year’s ICC World Twenty20 in India with victories over Papua New Guinea and Namibia in the last-ditch play-offs in Dublin.
The Afghans beat the team from the Asia-Pacific region by six wickets at Malahide while the Omanis were too strong for the men from Africa, eventually winning by five wickets at the same venue to reach its first-ever ICC World Twenty20.
This really was the last-chance saloon for these four teams. No safety nets, no alternative routes and no more excuses, just one big prize and a whole lot of pressure.
After a difficult couple of weeks for Afghanistan, the front-line bowlers of Mohammad Nabi, Dawlat Zadran and, in particular, Shapoor Zadran, turned up the heat when it really mattered and made PNG’s batsmen suffer early at Malahide.
Shapoor took two wickets, including the crucial one of Tony Ura, and conceded just nine runs off his four overs as PNG stumbled to 37-4 and 55-5. That it finally made 127-6 off 20 overs was thanks to some rear-guard action from Charles Amini, who made an unbeaten 37, and Norman Vanua, who hit a vital 22 not out off 10 balls.
While a target of 128 was never likely to worry a team with Afghanistan’s quality, there might have been a couple of anxious twitches in the dugout when star turn Mohammad Shahzad was out first ball of the innings, caught behind off the bowling of Vanua.
But Nawroz Mangal and captain Asghar Stanakzai consolidated for the Afghans, a luxury they could afford given the low run-rate required. And from that point, they gradually took the game away from PNG. Mangal carried his bat and finished unbeaten on 65 off 56 balls as he shepherded his team towards qualification with six wickets and 10 balls to spare.
Afghanistan captain Asghar said: “We are very happy. Qualification is very important for us. The team felt no pressure. The bowling won us the game. They bowled really well. It’s very important for our country that we qualified. We were disappointed by the performance against Hong Kong but now we are delighted.
“We were a little unlucky in the group stage because we had two games rained off but we also didn’t always play to the best of our ability. So when we made it through to the play-off, we were really motivated to do well. But our performance against Hong Kong was not as good as we wanted and they played very well that day. So we knew our chance of winning the tournament was gone but we still had one last chance to qualify for the World Twenty20 and we took it. By qualifying for India, we did what we came here to do and so from that point of view I am satisfied.”
Papua New Guinea has won many admirers during this tournament with the quality of some of its performances and the attitude of its players. This is a young group, who play with a smile on their face and great energy. Most observers predict we will see PNG at a major ICC tournament before too long.
Captain Jack Vare said: “Today wasn’t our day. The Afghanistan bowlers did well and we were about 20-30 runs short. They also batted well even though we did our best to put them under pressure.
“I’ve really enjoyed the tournament and thanks to everyone who’s supported us. It’s a very disappointing end for us but we will take a lot of positives. Those wins against the bigger sides were unbelievable. We are trying our best to develop our game across the different formats and we have made good progress in 50-over cricket and four-day cricket as well as Twenty20.”
In the second game, despite losing Gerrie Snyman for a duck, Namibia’s batsmen had put Oman’s opening bowlers to the sword during the powerplay, adding 66 for the second wicket thanks to Stephen Baard and Raymond van Schoor. But Oman came right back into it after that, slowing the run-rate right down and taking wickets at regular intervals.
Munis Ansari (3-23) was the pick but Aamir Kaleem’s 2-12 and Ajay Lalcheta’s 2-26 were also important to keep Namibia down to 148-9 off 20 overs. It was an effort in containment that would prove to be crucial.
With the bat, Oman looked cool and unflustered throughout the run-chase, despite the nerves and pressure the batsmen must have been feeling. Khawar Ali (19) and Zeeshan Maqsood (28) got off to a solid start, putting on 41 for the first wicket and then Jatinder Singh (33) continued the good work. But it was Zeeshan Ahmed who really did the job. When he smashed a four to win the match with an over to spare and bring up his half-century in the process, he sparked a stampede of his team-mates squealing across the Malahide ground as the Namibians dropped to their knees in disappointment.
Zeeshan made an unbeaten 51 and scooped the man-of-the-match trophy in the process. Draped in an Oman flag and clearly delighted with his efforts, he spoke afterwards. He said: “We were thinking that with the run-rate being about eight, we could go along at seven per over. That was my plan when I went in. In the second-last over I thought I should loosen up and go for a few more shots. That’s why I was taking chances then.
“In this tournament, we have preferred to be chasing rather than setting a total and it has been successful for us. Our coach’s plan was to do it like this so we are very happy to win like that today.
“We are delighted. Back in Oman, all the supporters and my family will be so happy that we have qualified. Here, I was just playing my own game, not taking any pressure, so I am happy to have helped the team and the result is there.”
With all the qualification spots now filled for the ICC World Twenty20 2016, attention now shifts to this tournament as an event in itself. Tomorrow is a practice day and on Saturday, the two semi-finals will take place at Malahide with a fifth-place play-off between today’s two winning sides taking place at Castle Avenue, Clontarf.
Qualifying Play-Off 3
At Malahide: Papua New Guinea 127-6, 20 overs (Charles Amini 37 not out; Shapoor Zadran 2-9)
Afghanistan 128-4, 18.2 overs (Nawroz Mangal 65 not out; Norman Vanua 2-19, Charles Amini 2-23)
Afghanistan won by six wickets
Qualifying Play-Off 4
At Malahide: Namibia 148-9, 20 overs (Stephen Baard 62, Raymond van Schoor 34; Munis Ansari 3-23, Aamir Kaleem 2-12, Ajay Lalcheta 2-26)
Oman 150-5, 19 overs (Zeeshan Ahmed 51 not out, Jatinder Singh 33, Zeeshan Maqsood 28)
Oman won by five wickets