Afghanistan-South Africa T20 World Cup semifinal pits cricket's overachievers against underachievers

England's captain Jos Buttler bats during the ICC Men's T20 World Cup cricket match between the United States and England at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 23, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

TAROUBA, Trinidad (AP) — Rashid Khan was hoisted on the shoulders of his celebrating Afghan teammates and then joined in a circle with the squad and took his turn to dance on the field, all beamed live for the TV audience.

The joy of reaching the Twenty20 World Cup semifinals for the first time — at the expense of cricket powerhouse Australia — lasted long after the dramatic win over Bangladesh in St. Vincent.

On Wednesday, the underdog Afghan team will go back to work against South Africa, which has been at or near the top of limited-overs cricket for decades but never won a title at a global tournament.

And so the first of the T20 World Cup semifinals in Trinidad will be a contest between the overachievers and underachievers of international cricket. The second semifinal on Thursday will feature two of the sport’s heavyweights, India and defending champion England.

Rashid is one of the leading bowlers in the T20 format, a regular star in the franchise leagues around the world. This is the pinnacle so far for him in national colors.

“It’s a massive achievement for us as a team and as a nation to be in the semis," he said. “The cricket we have played in the whole tournament so far - I think we deserve to be there.”

At the end of his post-match TV interview in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Rashid thanked the interviewer and then delivered a message in Pashto — an eastern Iranian language — for the team's massive following back in Kabul.

Afghans in their thousands took to the streets of Kabul to celebrate the national team's success in the Caribbean.

After reaching the second round at the previous three T20 World Cups, Afghanistan knocked out New Zealand in the group stage and then beat Australia for the first time last weekend to advance to the final four.

Losses to co-host West Indies in the group stage and to India in the second phase were reality checks that could serve the team well in the knockouts.

“It’s a case of us just looking at what we need to improve on, which is a few little areas ... nothing too major,” Afghanistan head coach Jonathan Trott said of the approach for the semifinals. “It’s just a sort of mindset shift. But I also think, we go into the semifinal with no scarring or no history with regards to semifinals.”

Trott was born in Cape Town and represented South Africa at junior levels before moving and playing test cricket for England. He's well aware of South Africa's history at cricket's world tournaments, and made a point of saying it's “uncharted territory” for Afghanistan.

“There’s no preconceived ideas, or history of failure or success in semifinals," he said. “For us it’s a new challenge and I think that makes us dangerous in the semifinals as a side with nothing to lose and obviously a lot of pressure on the opposition.”

Rob Walter, who has been head coach of South Africa's limited-overs teams since the start of 2023, is well aware of the magnitude of the match.

“It’s never just another game. I think that sort of rhetoric around semifinals is always untrue, or people trying to downplay the occasion,” he said. “It is a semifinal of a World Cup, and we appreciate that and we’re looking forward to it.”

South Africa is unbeaten at the tournament, but had to endure a tighter-than-expected one-run win over lowly-ranked Nepal, tough contests against Netherlands, Bangladesh and England and only beat West Indies with five balls to spare in the Super Eight stage.

“We’ve managed to get over the line in quite a number of close games in the lead up to the semifinal, which has been great for us.” he said. “We’ve potentially missed out on a few of those moments in the past.”

Afghanistan's performance has been inspired by some career-best form from individual bowlers and batters.

Three of the top five wicket-takers in the tournament are from Afghanistan, led by fast bowler Fazalhaq Farooqi with 16. Rashid Khan, who snared a match-winning four-wicket haul against Bangladesh, has 14. Fast bowler Naveen-ul-Haq has 13.

South Africa's leading wicket takers in the tournament have been fast bowlers Anrich Nortje at No. 8 with 11 wickets and Kagiso Rabada with 10.

Opening batters Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran have put together three century partnerships for Afghanistan and are among the top three leading run-scorers in the tournament with 281 and 229 respectively.

South Africa’s strong batting lineup hasn’t really fired as a unit so far in the tournament with only Quinton de Kock — at No. 6 with 199 runs — in the top 10. But the Proteas have the capacity to take a game away from an opposing team and are desperate to make some history of their own.

“The near misses in the past, they belong to the people who missed them," Walter said. "We own whatever is ours to own. And so, our nearest reflection point is this tournament where we’ve managed to get over the line. So that’s what we think about.”


AP cricket:

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