Bring on the pace of Proteas, say Afghans

While held up in the UAE by the volcanic ash cloud, the minnows practised on cement pitches to counter South Africa's quick bowlers.

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Rather than twiddling their thumbs during their extended stop-over in the UAE at the end of last month, Afghanistan's players spent their time trying to think up ways to counter South Africa's quick bowlers. The Afghans had been staying in Sharjah, waiting for their connecting flight to the Caribbean to get the green light after the delays caused by the volcanic ash cloud.

Practising on the concrete wickets of the Sharjah Cricket Stadium nets, all the thoughts of their players appeared to be consumed by the prospect of facing South Africa's fearsome new-ball attack. Without access to a bowling machine, or any fast bowlers of a similar ilk of their own, their batsmen had to be creative in thinking of a method to match Dale Steyn, the leading paceman in the game. In fact it was Morne Morkel, Steyn's beanpole new-ball partner, who worried them most. The type of bounce he generates from his 6ft 7ins frame is not something they have faced before.

To simulate the experience of facing him they pelted tennis balls, which had been thoroughly soaked in a cool-box filled with water, at each other from close range. All the while, they were far more concerned with how they were going to hit the balls for six, rather than the potential damage 90mph projectiles of rock-hard leather might do to them. It was Karim Sadiq, the free-spirited opening batsman, who first came out and said the prospect of facing the Proteas fast bowlers was nothing to be afraid of.

Rather than take the bait and issue prophesies about impending doom to the Afghan batsmen, Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, was sympathetic. "Their opener said he was not scared of facing Dale Steyn and I wouldn't be either if I grew up in a war zone," Smith reasoned, with a logic that does not always find a place in captaincy double-speak. And the Afghan players are not totally bereft of experience of facing hard-faced, nasty-fasties.

"We were told Shoaib Akhtar was coming to bowl, and all of our players were clapping, we were so excited," said Raees Ahmadzai, the batsman, recalling a training camp across the border in Lahore, when the Afghans took on Pakistan's National Academy. "I was nervous facing the first ball. I knew it would be at least 140kph. As soon as that first ball was out of the way, my nerves were gone. I hit him for six with a pull shot. It made us realise that cricket is just a mind game.

"That is why we are so relaxed about playing at the World Cup, so relaxed about playing against Dale Steyn. It will just be a war of minds." Afghanistan will have to learn fast if they are to avoid an early exit from their maiden appearance on the top stage. After an opening day defeat to India, which was ironically induced by their failings against the short ball, they must beat South Africa this evening to stay in the World Twenty20.

The same scenario faces the Proteas, who have not yet hinted at a return to the type of form which swept them to the semi-finals of the last World Twenty20, 11 months ago. They were also soundly beaten, by India, in their first match in St Lucia. Charl Langeveldt, the seam bowler, may be restored to the South Africa line-up in place of Rory Kleinveldt. Afghanistan v South Africa, 1am on CricOne