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Can Afghanistan withstand big-match pressure to round off impressive tour?

Rashid Khan reacts in the field Getty Images

The question mark hanging over Rashid Khan's availability for the T20I tri-series final on Tuesday could shift the focus on a related - and important - question for Afghanistan. Aside from their most experienced cricketers, can the team withstand big-match pressure? The answer might surprise you.

Sharafuddin Ashraf, the 24-year-old big-hitting allrounder who bowls left-arm spin, is being considered as a potential replacement for Rashid. Ashraf is making a comeback into the Afghanistan side, having played three matches earlier this year. He doesn't have a formidable international record yet - he has played 23 limited-overs matches for Afghanistan - but is among those who impressed during Afghanistan A's tour to Bangladesh in July.

"I think we have the back-up," Rashid said. "We have quality spinners like Mujeeb [Ur Rahman] and [Mohammad] Nabi, and there's also Sharafuddin, the left-arm spinner. He is a good allrounder."

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Ashraf is not on par with Rashid's class or quality yet, but his potential selection appears to be in line with the management's decision to give more opportunities to newcomers in Afghanistan's first tour following their disastrous World Cup campaign. The objective is to find more match-winners and take some pressure off the more established players, like Nabi and Rashid.

It is hard to put together an Afghanistan side without either of these mainstays but if Rashid is unavailable on Tuesday, the management is primed to implementing a plan of action they had been drafting over the past two years: to hand responsibility to a new crop of players.

Afghanistan's ongoing tour of Bangladesh has seen some of these newcomers make a statement. Ibrahim Zadran, who was picked on the back of an impressive showing during the A tour of Bangladesh, batted them into a winning position in the second innings of the one-off Test in Chattogram, with a gritty 87. Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Fareed Ahmad and Naveen-ul-Haq have held their own in the tri-series, with Gurbaz oozing an impressive measure of style in his strokeplay. Though Hazratullah Zazai and Mujeeb are from an earlier batch, both have established themselves in the T20I side and some of the franchise T20 leagues, too.

In Rashid's view, one of the reasons for both the Afghanistan Test and T20I sides doing well in Bangladesh is down to the separate skillsets brought into play by their batsmen. The Test team is built on Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi and Asghar Afghan, with Ibrahim and Afsar Zazai also making contributions in the Chattogram Test.

As far as the T20I side goes, Zazai, Nabi and Najibullah Zadran shoulder the bulk of the responsibility with the bat, while the likes of Gurbaz, Najeeb Tarakai, Shafiqullah, and Usman Ghani chip in from time to time. Rahmat and Shahidi have done well in ODIs, but neither is part of the T20I set-up, the former having never played a T20 international and Shahidi's only T20I appearance coming in 2013.

"We only have three guys who play both formats - me, Nabi and Asghar," Rashid said. "We have learned how to switch between formats, given our experience. You have to know that as an international cricketer and adjust yourself as soon as possible because you play all three formats in one tour.

"Our T20 guys had a good camp back home. They were already in form. The Test guys had a camp in Abu Dhabi. It is good to have different teams for different formats, and it is good to see that Afghanistan is able to do it. [That] makes it easier for captains and coaches. We don't need time to adjust to T20s. It is certainly pleasing me as a captain."

Rashid underscored that the Bangladesh tour gave them plenty of positives, especially in the form of newcomers like Ibrahim, Gurbaz and Naveen. "I am really happy with how Ibrahim played in the Test debut," Rashid said. "I am pretty happy with how Rahmat Shah and Asghar Afghan batted in that game. We also gave debuts to Zahir Khan and Qais Ahmed.

"Also the way Rahmanullah Gurbaz played in his maiden series...he showed his talent. Fareed bowled exceptionally well in the first two games. Naveen-ul-Haq also delivered brilliantly in the last game against Bangladesh. He is also a wonderful fielder, as well as a good bowler. We still have to improve in some areas but the way the youngsters took the responsibility and showed the talent, it was good for us."

Rashid said that a number of cricket academies have come up in Afghanistan in the recent past but even though facilities are not state of the art, young players have been trying to make the most of it.

"It is just about love of the cricket," Rashid said. "We don't have the facilities or proper ground but we have natural talent in all three departments. We are having more academies [these days], so there are a bit more facilities. Youngsters work hard back home. They are making the best use of it, whether there's grass on the ground. They always want to play for the national cricket team."

The uncertainty over Rashid's availability could be a boon to Bangladesh. It might, however, also throw up a surprise for Afghanistan, in Ashraf, the captain to be, and the other young players waiting to make their mark in the absence of their MVP.