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James Neesham fashions New Zealand's third straight win

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New Zealand 173 for 3 (Williamson 79* Taylor 48, Alam 3-45) beat Afghanistan 172 (Shahidi 59, Neesham 5-31, Ferguson 4-37) by seven wickets
 

While some of his team-mates were having the time of their lives in the middle in the 2015 World Cup, James Neesham watched that semi-final against South Africa from the Eden Park grass banks. He later fell out of love with cricket and was talked out of retirement. Then, he himself conceded that he hadn't started his maiden World Cup well. After leaking 45 in five overs against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, Neesham led New Zealand's pace assault in Taunton, returning 5 for 31 - his best figures in professional cricket - to bask in the company of Richard Hadlee, Shane Bond, Tim Southee and Trent Boult. No other New Zealand seamer has claimed five wickets in a World Cup.

Lockie Ferguson fell one short of joining that elite list, but was equally central to New Zealand dismissing Afghanistan for 172 and securing their third successive victory in the tournament. Ferguson's Flash-like pace netted him 4 for 37, including the wicket of Rashid Khan who was bowled off the helmet. The blow was so nasty that Rashid failed two concussion tests and did not bowl in the chase. There was no Mujeeb Ur Rahman either - he was dropped - and Afghanistan were forced into using part-time legspinner Rahmat Shah. In stark contrast, New Zealand didn't need Mitchell Santner at all.

Despite the unavailability of their premier spinners, Afghanistan made New Zealand's batsmen work hard for their runs in the chase. Aftab Alam, who had replaced the rested Dawlat Zadran, hit a hard length with his very first ball and had Martin Guptill lobbing a bat-pad catch to point for a golden duck. Colin Munro, who had kept his place in the side, ahead of a fit-again Henry Nicholls, had a promising start, but he wound up slicing a catch to third man for 22 off 24 balls.

Watch on Hotstar (India only) - Full highlights of the match

This brought Kane WilliamsonRoss Taylor, and familiar nervy running into focus. Williamson survived a run-out chance on 22 after responding slowly to a single. That Hashmatullah Shahidi couldn't effect a direct hit or fling a more accurate throw to the keeper saved Williamson. Mohammad Nabi then teased the New Zealand captain with his donkey drops and drift, making him overhit the ball and lose his shape in the process.

Rahmat, meanwhile, scratched Taylor's outside edge with his first ball and continued to trouble the batsman with his turn and dip. Afghanistan had deployed a square gully and point for Williamson, blocking his favourite dab to third man. They steadily built pressure on New Zealand, but Williamson and Taylor absorbed it and bed in to put their side on top. Taylor played all around a dipping full-toss from Alam and was bowled for 48, snapping a vital 89-run stand, but Williamson had progressed to a 77-ball half-century.

Williamson ushered New Zealand home in the company of Tom Latham, who had earlier snapped up five catches behind the stumps - just one short of tying the all-time ODI record.

It was Afghanistan opener Hazratullah Zazai who had set the early pace with almighty leg-side hoicks and baseball swings. He was reprieved twice - on 16 and 18 - and went after anything that was remotely close to his body. Noor Ali Zadran, who had replaced the injured Mohammad Shahzad at the top, rolled out some exquisite front-foot drives at the other end to push Afghanistan to 61 for 0 in the Powerplay.

Then, it was time for Williamson to #UnleashtheNeesh. Neesham dangled a wide ball - possibly wider than a set of stumps outside off - and Zazai took the bait, carving a catch to sweeper cover. Just like that Afghanistan lost 4 for 4, with Neesham collecting three in three overs. He fooled Rahmat Shah with one that held up in the pitch while splice-jarring bounce got the better of captain Gulbadin Naib.

Mohammad Nabi and Naijibullah Zadran, too, were bounced out by Neesham as Afghanistan were teetering at 109 for 6. After finishing a career-best spell, Neesham drew warm pats on his shoulder from his seniors Williamson and Taylor. Job well done.

No. 4 Shahidi, however, found a way against seam and bounce and held on limpet-like either side of a rain delay. Ferguson had blasted out Noor Ali and welcomed Shahidi with a 147kph ball that rocketed past the outside edge. Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme gave him no swinging room either, but Shahidi ground his way to an 84-ball half-century.

However, with his partners appearing and disappearing, Shahidi, too, swung for the hills and added 20-plus stands with wicketkeeper Ikram Alikhil and No.11 Hamid Hassan. Aftab Alam contributed with 14 off 10 balls, helping take his side past 150. Shahidi, though, was the last man dismissed as Afghanistan left nearly nine overs unused in their innings. New Zealand ultimately closed out the game with 17.5 overs to spare, handing Afghanistan their third straight defeat.

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