Australia won the match, but Afghanistan won plenty of admirers before going down by 66 runs in their one-day international (ODI) in Sharjah.
Playing only their second ODI against an established side, Afghanistan restricted Michael Clarke’s team to 272-8 before responding with 206 all out from 43.5 overs.
“It was a big occasion and we learnt a lot from the experience of playing Australia,” Afghanistan captain Nawroz Mangal told reporters through an interpreter. “I’m satisfied with the performance of my team. We couldn’t put runs on the board in the top order but Australia are a major team and they know how to win.”
Clarke typified that know-how, scoring 75 from 94 balls after promoting himself to No. 3 in the batting order having won the toss and opting to take first use of a pitch as hard as concrete and equally devoid of grass.
Clarke shared a second wicket stand of 131 in 28 overs with opener Matthew Wade, who also made 75, his highest score in ODIs, to help set the platform for Australia’s match-winning total.
Later, the Australia captain leapt high to his left at midwicket to pull off a spectacular catch to remove Afghanistan’s top-scorer Ashgar Stanizkai, who made 66 before becoming one of man-of-the-match Mitchell Starc’s four wickets.
“Afghanistan played quite well,” Starc told reporters. “They put up a fight, surprised us with how well they fielded and they batted quite well too. It was a competitive match for us.”
The match actually spanned two days, starting at 6pm on Saturday and finishing at 1:30am the following day in an effort to combat the extreme heat of the United Arab Emirates summer.
There was no direct sunlight for the players to contend with, but extremely high humidity allied to a temperature that never dipped below 30°C made it as much a case of the survival of the fittest as a cricket match.
Wade became visibly distressed toward the end of his innings and when he was out, Australia briefly lost their way, losing four wickets for 42 runs.
However, Mike Hussey (49), back in the side after missing the recent series in England for family reasons, and George Bailey (23) gave the innings late impetus.
Afghanistan’s Stanikzai struggled badly with cramp, although he and Mohammad Nabi (46) led a recovery from 49-4, adding 86 in 19 overs to briefly threaten Australia’s total after Starc (4-47) and James Pattinson (3-46) produced impressive new-ball spells.
The heat and humidity also meant bowlers from both sides regularly bowled full tosses, a legacy of sweaty hands unable to grip the ball properly.
“We thought it would be a drier heat, but both balls towards the end [of the Afghanistan innings] were hard to hold onto,” Starc said. “It’s something we’ll have to look at in training before we start the Pakistan series [tomorrow].”
“Finishing a game at 1:30am is something we’ve now experienced and there are quite a few tired bodies in the dressing room now,” Starc said.
Afghanistan, who lost by seven wickets to Pakistan in February in their previous ODI encounter with a leading side, now head to Trinidad to continue preparations for the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka next month, which they have qualified for along with Ireland.
“We hope we can learn from this game and the West Indies tour,” Mangal said. “We want to cause a major upset at the Twenty20 World Cup.”