Kane Williamson’s unbeaten team secured their third successive win of the tournament to remain on top of the nine-team table and move on to face India on Thursday in confident mood following this regulation seven-wicket wicket win.
Briefly, just as they had against Sri Lanka in Cardiff on Tuesday, Afghanistan caused their more experienced opponents some problems.
After Williamson won the toss and opted to bowl, the Black Caps skipper must have been asking himself some serious questions when Afghanistan’s openers Hazratullah Zazai and Noor Ali Zadran clattered their way to 66 at more than a run a ball.
Liam Neesham, who went on to collect career best figures of five for 31 from 10 overs, halted the carnage when he had Hazratullah caught by Colin Munro to spark a now all too familiar Afghan collapse which saw them lose four wickets for four runs in the space of 20 balls. Their innings never recovered.
Neesham bowling beautifully to collect his first white-ball five-wicket haul while Lockie Ferguson delivered searing pace and plenty of aggression and wicket-keeper Tom Latham took five catches.
A winning target of 173 in 50 overs was never going to seriously trouble a side of New Zealand’s quality but when they lost gun opener Martin Guptill, caught by Najibullah Zadran off the excellent Aftab Alam, even the coolest of Black Caps must have felt the heat slightly.
But their high class, unfussy captain Williamson steadied the ship with partnerships of 41 with Munro (24), 84 with Ross Taylor (48) and finally an unbeaten fourth-wicket stand of 43 with Latham to see their side home.
At times Afghanistan did not help themselves. Their use of the decision review system was beyond awful with inexperienced captain Gulbadin Naib twice culpable of what can only be described as crass stupidity when first he was rightly given out caught behind off Neesham only to call for a review, which showed what he must already known; that he had hit the ball.
Then, when New Zealand batted, Gulbadin agreed to review a caught behind appeal against Williamson, on 19 at time, which never looked remotely out for one very good reason; Williamson had missed it by six inches.
These were not the principle reasons Afghanistan were beaten because in reality they were outclassed across the board by a New Zealand team approaching the top its collective game. But they added to a sense their fortunes could be improved with some clearer, calmer leadership.
Ultimately New Zealand’s bowlers were too good for Afghanistan’s batting line up with Neesham nipping the ball off the pitch at a decent pace and with excellent control while the under-rated Ferguson injected serious pace into the attack, regularly bowling in excess of 90mph.
While Neesham got most of the plaudits in taking career best figures and Trent Boult is more of a household name it is Ferguson who could hold the long-term key to New Zealand’s fortunes in this tournament with his ability to extract pace and bounce from relatively benign surfaces.
His dismissal of Aghanistan’s number nine Rashid Khan saw the tail-ender bowled off the grill of his helmet when the ball catapulted onto the stumps following a sickening blow caused by the rising ball.
Khan, clearly shaken and potentially concussed, took no further part in the game and was last night being assessed by doctors. Sadly, the incident again highlighted cricket’s opaque approach to concussion management which the ICC has been unable to regulate effectively. No-one inside Taunton was able to say whether Khan had even undergone a test and if he had what that test actually was. Cricket has plenty to do in this area, despite the global shock caused by Phil Hughes’ death 2014.
Mercifully, Khan should be fine. But the damage done to his team’s hopes of building respectability in the world game by their latest tournament loss will disappoint many among their passionate following inside the ground, here.
Hazratullah again hit some lusty blows at the top of the order while Hashmatullah Shahidi held his side’s innings gainfully before becoming the last man out for 59 from 99 balls.
Aftab bowled with some pace and hostility to take all three New Zealand wickets but otherwise Afghanistan’s attack hardly threatened.
For the umpteenth time Williamson provided a steady anchor at No3 for the Black Caps, scoring 79 not out off 89 balls to guide his side home following Guptill’s early departure with almost 18 overs to spare.
Their encounter with India will be considerably more testing but New Zealand are shaping up very nicely indeed at this stage of the tournament.
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