Afghanistan landed the first blow in the Gulbahar ODI series with a 29 run win against Ireland at Stormont on Monday.
Having won the toss and elected to bowl, Ireland made an early breakthrough when Hazratullah Zazai was caught by Simi Singh off the bowling of Boyd Rankin for 14.
The left-handed opener was in tremendous form throughout the Twenty20 series in Bready, and was threatening to produce something similar when he smashed Rankin for a huge six, but had to depart with the very next ball after he was dropped on two earlier in the day.
When Tim Murtagh took a stunning caught and bowled three overs later to dismiss Ihsanullah Janat for 9, Afghanistan were 25-2 and Ireland would have been looking to exert further pressure on their visitors, but Rahmat Shah and Gulbadin Naib were finding runs easy to come by and brought their 50 partnership up in the 18th over.
Andrew McBrine played no part in either Twenty20 game but was selected ahead of George Dockrell for the first match of the 50 over series, and justified that call when he made a much-needed breakthrough, claiming the scalp of Shah for 29.
That didn’t stop Afghanistan ticking along with relative comfort, as Naib reached his 50 from 86 balls and was constructing another crucial partnership with Hashmatullah Shahidi.
In need for something to happen, captain William Porterfield called upon Rankin once again and the Warwickshire man duly delivered, trapping Naib LBW for 64.
Shahidi brought up his own half-century before he was caught by Andrew Balbirnie off the bowling of Murtagh, and a lot of credit must be given to the Irish bowling attack for the way they were able to restrict Afghanistan to 227-9 after it looked like the away side might reach in the region of 280 at one point.
They lost their last five wickets for only 30 runs, and with Ireland not bowling even a single wide, it shows they performed admirably.
Murtagh was the standout performer with the ball, ending with figures of 4-31 from his 10 overs - his best in an ODI for Ireland, with Balbirnie picking up the record for most outfield catches in an ODI for the nation with his tally of four.
Porterfield and Paul Stirling opened the batting for the Irish, and it wasn’t long before Afghanistan had their first wicket when the latter was caught behind for 10.
Afghanistan have an array of dangerous spinners, so a steady start was always going to be key if the home side were to have a chance of running out victors, and the task at hand got more difficult when Naib had Porterfield caught behind for 16.
Disaster struck soon after when Niall O’Brien was ran out for 11 by Shahidi, and when Singh was bowled by Nabi, Ireland were 93-4 in the 27th over and had some work to do.
After some difficulties against spin last week, Balbirnie looked much more assured this time round, sweeping with intent and the Pembroke batsman was holding the innings together. moving to a deserved half-century from 76 balls.
He was looking in fine touch before picking out short-fine leg off the bowling of Mujeeb for 55, and will have been disappointed not to see his team closer to the winning target.
When Kevin O’Brien was ran out for 22, Ireland really faced an uphill task, especially needing 77 runs from 10 overs - five of which were to be bowled by Rashid Khan.
It was left to Gary Wilson to try and guide the team home with the tail, and when he was bowled by Khan for 38, the result was confirmed.
Afghanistan have now won all three matches on their current tour, but this was a much improved performance from Ireland with the ball, but they will be annoyed at how the game seemed to get away from them in the latter stages of the second innings.
The two teams will meet again tomorrow.
Afghanistan: 227-9: Naib 64, Shahidi 54, Shah 29 Murtagh 4-31, Rankin 3-44.
Ireland: Balbirnie 55, Wilson 38, K O’Brien 22, Nabi 2-42, Alam 2-34.