Afghans take Bangladesh all the way, but have to settle for silver
Afghanistan pushed Bangladesh all the way in Friday's final of the Asian Games men's cricket tournament in Guangzhou, but in the end they were unable to prevent their more experienced opponents from taking the gold medal with five wickets and just three balls to spare.
It was far short of being a full Bangladeshi side, but with a total of 90 Tests, 284 ODIs and 52 Twenty20 internationals between them, and led by the wily old campaigner Mohammad Ashraful, they had been many people's favourites from the outset.
Yet they found themselves in serious trouble when they were 76 for five after 15 overs, chasing a fairly modest Afghan total of 118 for eight and having lost three wickets in successive overs from Karim Khan and Hamid Hassan, and it took a disciplined effort from Naeem Islam (34 not out from 42 deliveries) and Sabbir Rahman (33 not out from 18) to see them home.
Earlier, Afghanistan had battled their way to their 118 after winning the toss and electing to bat first. They lost Mohammad Shahzad in the first over, caught behind off Nazmul Hossain without scoring, and even the aggressive Karim was comparatively restrained, making 20 from 30 balls, including two consecutive sixes off Nazmul, before the Bangladeshi bowler had his revenge by taking a fine catch at deep square leg as Karim swept at off-spinner Naeem.
That made it 37 for three, and when Nowrooz Mangal fell in the next over the Afghans were 51 for four at the halfway mark.
That they eventually reached 118 was due in large measure to a fine unbeaten innings from Asghar Stanikzai, whose 38 came from 36 deliveries with three fours and a six, and a hard-hitting one from Shabir Noori, who smacked 25 from 19 as the pair added a crucial 34 runs in less than six overs, including 16 in one over from the hapless Nazmul.
Ashraful came on to bowl the penultimate over, removing Shabir and Shafiqullah Shafaq with successive balls and conceding just three runs, but Asghar took another 16 from Shahadat Hossain's last to ensure that the Afghan bowlers had something to defend.
Mirwais Ashraf struck the first blow in the fourth over when Bangladesh replied, and when keeper Mithun Ali was run out in the eighth with the total on 40 the Afghans had worked their way back into the match. Naeem and Ashraful made steady progress, but skipper Mohammad Nabi had held his trump card Hamid Hassan back until the twelfth over, and he immediately turned the screw by conceding just one run.
Ashraful was bowled by Karim in the next, Hamid swiftly removed Faisal Hossain, and when Karim had Shuvagoto Hom caught, Bangladesh were behind the rate and in serious danger of a stunning defeat.
But the experienced Naeem and the teenager Sabbir gradually turned things round: 26 were needed from 18 deliveries, and seven came from Hamid's penultimate over, the 18th of the innings. Sabbir now decided to settle things as Karim bowled the 19th, smashing three consecutive sixes, and suddenly Bangladesh needed just two from the final over.
Even Hamid was unable to prevent a Bangladeshi victory from there, and a leg-bye brought the scores level. Two balls later Naeem drove straight, and Bangladesh had taken the gold medal. Hamid finished with one for 11 from 21 deliveries, while Karim took two for 27.
It was a disappointing outcome for Afghanistan, but they had once again confirmed their tremendous fighting spirit and the quality of much of their play. Now they must adjust their sights for the very different challenge of the five-day Intercontinental Cup final against Scotland in Dubai, starting on 2 December.