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Been there, done that: Calum MacLeod and Scotland’s quest to tame Afghan spin

With success against Rashid Khan and Afghanistan's spin depth already on his resume, Calum MacLeod looks to Scotland's T20 World Cup clash with confidence.

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In one of the games of the men’s inaugural Hundred in August, Michael Vaughan wondered during commentary if there was ever a batter who had completely owned Rashid Khan in an innings. Isa Guha, who seemed equally oblivious to a famous knock in Bulawayo, could only suggest as far as Shane Watson in the Big Bash League and Eoin Morgan at the 2019 World Cup.

Scotland’s Calum MacLeod may have allowed himself a chuckle somewhere. 

He was, after all, the architect of Scotland’s famous win against Afghanistan on the opening day of the ICC Men’s World Cup Qualifier 2018 in Bulawayo, as he bested Rashid Khan by finishing on 157 not out having unfurled the sweep shot more often than not to hand him figures of 1-68 in nine overs, the leg-spinner’s first expensive outing at the time.

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Since then, MacLeod and Scotland have come a long way putting behind their World Cup heartbreak against the West Indies. Having qualified for the T20 World Cup, they made it three wins out of three last week to top group B and eventually storm into the Super 12s. 

As they take on Afghanistan, Scotland will look to continue the streak but as they do, they will eye the prospect of breaking the duck having never won a T20 International against them, the last of which had a bearing on them not qualifying for the main draw of the 2016 T20 World Cup in India. It will, however, come with the threat of facing their famed spin troika.

“First thing, I think it’ll be a challenge against all their spinners,” MacLeod said on Sunday at a media interaction. “Everyone understands the attack that Afghanistan have got with three world-class spinners in there.

“I think the biggest thing is you have to try and put the pressure back on them. Like all the top-class teams that you play against, if you let the bowlers just bowl at you, their skills will be too good for you over a period, so I think you have to find a method of putting the pressure back on them, whether that be with sweeping or coming down the wicket, whatever your method is about it, and I think you’ve got to stick to it and be pretty disciplined to go with it.”

He recently spoke to Emerging Cricket on his stint with Kent in the T20 Blast in June where he had the opportunity to take on Rashid Khan in a four-wicket loss to Sussex at Canterbury.

“Anytime you play one of the best bowlers in the world and if you’ve got memories of playing them well, I think you have to lean on them. I know he (Khan) remembered it because he mentioned it and that felt like I was able to put some pressure back on him.”

MacLeod is quietly confident of his side coming up trumps against a familiar adversary in familiar conditions. In addition to squaring off against Afghanistan in Sharjah five times, albeit in 2013, he was also the only Scotsman to be involved in the Afghanistan Premier League (APL) staged at the same venue in 2018 which meant rubbing shoulders with some of the Afghan players his side will take on in their first game of the Super 12s.

“Obviously it’ll be Afghanistan’s first game in the tournament, and we can also go in there and put some pressure on them. I said it before the first round, we feel we’ve got a batting unit filled with some exciting powerful players, and we just hope that we’ll be able to showcase that and just because we’re now into the Super 12s, I don’t think that changes much for us. I think we’ll come and play the aggressive type of cricket we want to play.”

In Sharjah, the importance of the powerplay and scoring runs cannot be stressed enough. Ireland raced away to 55 in a low-scoring thriller against Namibia last week while Sri Lanka chased down 172 on a good track against Bangladesh yesterday after steamrolling a Dutch side which looked all at sea for 44. The trend observed so far is quite clear: the team chasing has won all three games and the key would be to cash in on the powerplay. 

The challenge for Scotland’s bowlers lies therein. Afghanistan’s top-order boasts of big-hitters and fast-starters in Hazratullah Zazai, Mohammad Shahzad and Rahmanullah Gurbaz, the latter two Macleod shared a dressing room with for Paktia in the APL. 

The onus will, therefore, be on Josh Davey, Scotland’s leading wicket-taker in the preliminary round, Brad Wheal and Safyaan Sharif to deliver.

“I think it’s going to be a fascinating matchup,” said Macleod. “It will help both our batters and challenge the bowlers in a different way. In Oman, the pitch was maybe not quite so conducive to the powerplay for the batters, so I think as a batting unit we’re going to have to change quickly to what a par score in the powerplay is going to be, and our bowlers are going to be put under some definite pressure.

“But I think these are three seamers who we’ve relied on so far, even if Mark Watt has to bowl in the powerplay, as well. I think we’ve got a unit who can swing the ball that can bowl with definite skills who hopefully will be able to challenge what is a dangerous Afghanistan top order and hopefully come out on top.”

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