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Cricket news - Polishing Afghanistan's rough diamonds
Charl Langeveldt's laugh is quite something. It booms out at you, uninhibited and unexpected after every few sentences. At one point, Afghanistan's bowling coach struggles to get his words out because he's laughing so hard, recalling the difficulty the players had when trying to work out what strip they were playing Sri Lanka on in Cardiff. "They weren't sure. All of them looked the same. Green!" It's an infectious laugh, the sort that takes you with it so that you find yourself laughing too. After three World Cup defeats from three so far, it's just the sort of positivity Afghanistan need right now.
After a decade of spectacular, rapid improvement, Afghanistan are at an interesting moment in their development. Now a full Test nation, they are expected to compete and win but they are also still learning the intricacies of life against the best countries in the world. For all the remarkable progress they have made, they have played just 28 ODIs against the nine other countries in this tournament. They have played England just once, India and New Zealand only twice apiece. Afghanistan are still wet behind the ears in top-level terms and their naivety is showing.
In their opening two games against Australia and Sri Lanka, they were five wickets down with the bat, reckless and free, for 57 and 77 runs respectively. Against New Zealand, they reached 66 without loss but then lost three wickets for no runs. Against Australia, they bowled 14 wides and then followed it up with 22 more against Sri Lanka. There have been individual glimpses of the abundant talent they have but the collective has been disappointing, a stark reminder that for all their progress, Afghanistan still have a long way to go.
"We haven't managed to get all three departments well on the day," Langeveldt tells Cricbuzz. "We start well with the bat and then we lose wickets in clusters. That's just experience. They are used to playing against Ireland, Scotland." Against those teams, the players' natural gifts can get them over the line even if the foundations of their games are not as stable as they could be. Against the better international teams, solid basics and clear thinking are required too.
"We haven't had enough top-level cricket so when you get in that situation with the bat, you say OK, he's bowling well, just see him off for a couple of overs," Langeveldt says. "For them it's see ball, hit ball. They think we need to get runs on the board now. No, it's a process. They've only just started playing four-day cricket. That's where your basis for 50-over cricket comes from."
Langeveldt joined Phil Simmons' coaching staff early in 2018 ahead of the World Cup qualifiers, turning down an opportunity at Leicestershire to remain on the international scene. He spent two years as South Africa's bowling coach before that and was excited at the talent Afghanistan possessed and the potential to learn a different culture. Already, he says it has been "an amazing journey" and one that has taught him a huge amount. But he has had to adapt his coaching style significantly.
In South Africa, fast bowlers who moved up to international cricket already had the basics and the understanding. Langeveldt could work with them on extras like variation and tactics. With Afghanistan it has been different. With little first-class structure to speak of, he has had to drill the foundations into the likes of Hamid Hasan and Aftab Alam himself. "These guys just wanted to bowl bouncers because they played tape ball in Afghanistan and tape ball cricket is bowl short, bowl fast," he says.
"They've got natural talent but they need to be guided. Even the senior guys, they were all over the show. It was bouncer, then they will try a yorker. It just comes down to being able to bowl six balls in the right areas, ask good questions of the batsman.
"I had to go back to basics. I went to the nets, put cones on the side and said this is the area you need to bowl in. They have improved but it's still a learning curve. They get hit for a boundary and they think they need to change up or knock the stumps over instead of saying I'll go back to my hard Test lengths again."
Afghanistan's seamers would be wise to heed Langeveldt's advice. He knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level having played 72 ODIs for South Africa, averaging less than 30 with the ball, as well as six Tests. As a former fast bowler, he is pleased to see the bouncer being used regularly in this tournament, helped by fresh pitches with extra grass which has provided more bounce than many were expecting.
But as someone whose game was built around smart and subtle variations rather than searing pace, he's also interested in whether the knuckleball appears more often as the tournament progresses and the pitches get flatter. "It's a great ball to have because sometimes batsmen pick it up very late," he says. "It's still the same arm speed, you can't actually see the change in the bowler's wrist or anything. It's just the grip that the bowler will change at the last minute."
Alam, who took three wickets against New Zealand, has been working on a version in the nets but hasn't yet nailed it enough to use it in a game. Anyway, Langeveldt doesn't want to cloud the thinking of his bowlers with too much variation. Basics, basics, basics. "I've said to them we can't go there if we haven't perfected being able to hit six out of six in a good area," he jokes.
Understandably for an Asian side, Afghanistan's strength has not been in pace bowling but in the quality of their spinners with Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman the first, second and fifth highest ODI wicket takers in their history. In India, where they play their "home" games, and other subcontinental-like conditions, this is a major weapon but the spinners have so far found things tougher in unhelpful English conditions. Mujeeb, who conceded more than seven runs an over across the first two matches, was dropped for the third against New Zealand.
"There's been nothing in it for them," says Langeveldt. "In the Asia Cup, Rashid was unbelievable, Mujeeb was good. He's finding his feet. T20 to 50-over cricket is a massive difference. You need to be able to control the game if you are not taking wickets. They are still in the mode where they need to strike instead of just holding the game and creating pressure from both ends."
Afghanistan's rise to international cricket's top table has been one of the best stories in sport but with it has come increased expectation and scrutiny. Poor performances are criticised more, repeated mistakes bemoaned. They are no longer the plucky underdogs and their disappointing showings in the tournament to date have certainly raised the heat. "They are feeling the pressure because people expect them to do a lot better than we have so far," Langeveldt says.
Not that the Afghans will be shying away from the challenge of improving, starting with the game in Cardiff against South Africa on Saturday. One of the things Langeveldt has noticed since he began working with them is that the players don't like to show weakness. It's a culture where strength is valued highly. During last year's Asia Cup, Khan suffered a severe hamstring injury in the tied match against India. "I said it's alright mate, you don't have to go and bowl," Langeveldt recalls. "He said I am going and he bowled. He tied the game for us. He bowled with no hamstring."
That result against India was proof of the talent Afghanistan have - as was their defeat of Pakistan in a warm-up game before the tournament began. It is talent that is plain to see but also talent which still needs to be harnessed, the rough edges still in need of smoothing off. "It will come with time, the more they play in these situations, they will learn from it," says Langeveldt. "It can only get better from here onwards." And with that, he lets out one big, last laugh and says his goodbyes.
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