Two of the three things Afghanistan needed to go right for them on Tuesday did: England batted first and the sun was shining. It was the third element that undid their plans, hopes and confidence. And England did it in a manner no team had in the World Cup so far, despite four defeats. Afghanistan needed their spinners to dominate, led by the man who has been their talisman and their totem in world cricket's best story in decades. But not only did England dismantle Afghanistan's bowling, they struck the hardest where it would hurt them most; by ruthlessly attacking the man who represents their cricket, and their standing in world sport.
Rashid Khan came into this World Cup ranked second among the highest wicket-takers in the world over the last four years. Enormously deceptive as everyone knew those numbers were (the majority against Zimbabwe and Ireland), Rashid, purveyor of the fine art of leg spin and dispenser of deceptive googlies, was always meant to be Afghanistan's flag-bearer at this World Cup. England and Old Trafford threw that notion into the wind.
At the end of 35th over, England were positioned at 199 for 2 and Eoin Morgan (26 off 24) had made his intentions clear. Rashid had been trying to settle in, having switched ends for the third time (4-0-29-0). Like his team, Rashid had not had the best of World Cups: before Old Trafford he had bowled 22.5 overs in three matches (his team bowled in four, but he didn't bowl against New Zealand after suffering from a concussion after copping a blow on the helmet off Lockie Ferguson) and taken 3 for 114. It was the time for Rashid to step up, hone in the radar and stamp his presence on the game.
Instead, it was to become the place where Rashid was to be schooled by England and their captain. All the bowling horrors of Rashid, (his worst figures, the most expensive figures by a bowler in the World Cup, the most sixes off a bowler in ODIs) were amplified for his team - 198 in the last 15 overs; of which 74 runs came off Rashid. Rather than spotlight one man and his miseries, the spotlight could be turned onto a single event of the day, which marked both Afghanistan's struggles in the World Cup overall as well as Rashid's impending doom.
In the second ball of his sixth over, Rashid sends one looping across Morgan (on 28) who has good hoick at it, mistimes a slog sweep which heads into deep midwicket's pocket. Except Dawlat Zadran is too far inside the boundary line, must backpedal and so swats helplessly at the ball. It slaps his fingertips, lobs over his head and bounces over the rope. Morgan lands the next ball into the stands, the first of his seven sixes off Rashid and Rashid the competitor disintegrates. Had the catch been taken - and it was a regulation midwicket skier - who knows what would have transpired; but that is not to deny that this has been a very underwhelming World Cup for Rashid. He is not close to the bowler who beguiled the world through T20 cricket, nor the bowler who has succeeded against far-less threatening opposition and remained a consistent quality performer against the higher-ranked nations.
The Afghan spinners who have been memorable in this World Cup so far have been Mohammad Nabi, who poleaxed the Sri Lanka middle order in Cardiff, and Mujeeb ur Rahman, who in this boundary-heist in Manchester, conceded 44 off his ten overs. Not Rashid. For a bowler known for his cramping accuracy, hustling pace and illusory angles, Rashid was not allowed to settle by Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root who turned the strike over. Against the left handers, after he had been caned by Morgan, Rashid bowled on both sides of the wicket, unable to hit the perfect length and wavering between too short or too full.
At one point, it was like the presence of Rashid Khan itself had evaporated off the field; he is not a large man, in any case, it took a while to single him out on the boundary line or even find him among his teammates as the senior players - Gulbadin Naib, Asghar Afghan and Nabi - confabulated with each other to try and stem the onslaught. There are several reasons for why Rashid's World Cup has been minus notice. Playing against a higher level of opposition, as opposed to lower ranked nations, in small British grounds could be one of those.
Watch on Hotstar (India only) England crack 125 runs from final eight overs
Yet Rashid's ODI statistics against the other nine World Cup playing nations coming into this tournament show an average of 13.79 and an economy rate of 3.51. In 683 balls bowled in ODIs to those countries before this tournament, Rashid had conceded only four sixes.
Had Afghanistan's fourth spinner, Rahmat Shah, gone for these figures it would have been more understandable. He would have been quickly taken off the attack; but Afghanistan couldn't possibly demonstrate such a lack of faith against their highest achiever. Just as much as Rashid has been studied and dissected by the opposition, so has he run into many of these players in the world's various T20 leagues. On Tuesday, Rashid was asked questions only he can answer: is he suffering from the yips that the World Cup has landed in his lap, one defeat after another, against opponents that throw up far more rounds of give and take than he can take? Or did the concussion have greater after-effects than we were led to believe?
What has not changed is how his team sees him: after the England innings ended, the Afghan players gathered towards each other near the crease, soberly clapping, shaking hands and giving each other a pat on the shoulder. The man furthest away from them took the longest time from the long square boundary to get to where they were. When he got closest, Rashid Khan's team surrounded him, arms around his shoulders, pats on his back heartfelt even from a distance. Afghanistan's champion had been bruised and beaten but they are willing him to fight another day. Because they are him and he is them. All for one and one for all.