Afghanistan set 494 to win as Bagai elects to turn the screw
Afghanistan go into the final day of their Intercontinental Cup match against Canada at the Sharjah CA Stadium needing to make 454 to win off a minimum of 96 overs or, more probably, to bat all day in order to avoid outright defeat.
In what seemed on the face of it to be a strange decision, Canadian captain Ash Bagai declined to enforce the follow-on on Monday, after his bowlers had dismissed Afghanistan for 264, 302 behind, soon after lunch, opting instead to extend his side's already substantial lead.
They batted for 40 overs, making a brisk 191 for four before Bagai declared, and Karim Khan and Noor Ali then safely negotiated a tricky 45-minute, 13-over period before the close, making 40 of the 494 he had set them for victory.
Perhaps the injury to left-arm seamer Umar Bhatti, who bowled less than six overs this morning before he was forced to leave the field, weighed upon Bagai's mind, or the way in which Afghanistan have managed to extract outright victories from their last two Intercontinental Cup games, against The Netherlands and Ireland. But it is a decision that may come back to haunt him should the Canadians fail to bowl Afghanistan out on the final day.
With Afghanistan on 227 for seven at lunch, the Canadian attack needed only seven overs after the interval to finish off the innings and take first-innings points.
The Afghan policy of block-block-smash continued into the afternoon session, and it was a striking statistic that of the 154 they scored on Monday, no fewer than 116 came from boundaries. Their diet of one-day and Twenty20 matches, as well as their inherent approach, has equipped the Afghan batsmen to take full advantage of any error in line and length, but they have little experience of the long haul, pushing ones and twos and batting for hours on end.
Part of this, though, was due to the inexplicable decision to put Mohammad Nabi, arguably their most accomplished batsman, in at No. 8, and once Samiullah Shenwari, his partner at lunch, fell in the second over of the session, he had little choice but to go onto the attack, hitting a succession of four sixes.
In the end, he was left not out on 48, made from 47 deliveries, and one can't help wondering why he is not batting higher up the order, say at four or five.
Afghanistan had resumed on 110 for three this morning, and Shabir Noori and Mohammad Shahzad started steadily, not least because Shabir was on the brink of his half-century. Once he reached that milestone he began to bat more freely, but the reintroduction of off-spinner Nitish Kumar into the attack immediately proved his downfall, as he became the first of Bagai's three victims behind the stumps.
Shabir's patient 60 had come from 162 deliveries, with ten boundaries. Worse was to follow for Afghanistan, however, for in the following over Umar Bhatti caught the edge and Shahzad also departed.
Bagai again switched his bowlers frequently, although one change was enforced when Bhatti broke down in mid-over and had to leave the field. The changes maintained the pressure on the batsmen, but Karim Khan and Raees Ahmadzai kept their side's hopes alive with a defiant stand of 51 for the sixth wicket.
Again a bowling change produced immediate success, however, as Sandeep Jyoti removed Raees with his third delivery of the morning, and when Karim fell three overs later Afghanistan were 208 for seven.
Raees and Samiullah saw them through to the interval, but the end came soon afterwards. It seemed a safe bet that Bagai would invite them to bat again, but instead Trevin Bastiampillai and Rizwan Cheema, the latter in his ODI position at the top of the order, appeared to turn the screw.
Cheema made a typically aggressive 27 before he was bowled by Mirwais, but it was Bastiampillai's 93-ball 73 which was the core of the Canadian innings. He created a platform from which Jyoti and Ramesh David were able to launch the attack which put Bagai in a position to declare, adding 51 runs from 44 deliveries in an unbroken stand for the fifth wicket.
As with so much in this match, the task now facing the Afghans is one they have not confronted before, and coach Kabir Khan will no doubt have much to say overnight about the need to be positive without being reckless. Scoring 454 at 4.73 an over ought to be beyond them, but this is an Afghan side which does not recognise the concept of impossibility. The odds are strongly with Canada, but Tuesday is likely to turn out to be another fascinating day's cricket.