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Tension rising around Afghan squad as World Cup losses mount

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The losses are mounting up for Phil Simmons and the Afghanistan team at the Cricket World Cup, and so is the level of off-field tension. The Afghans were supposed to be the feel-good story of the World Cup, tipped by the likes of England captain Eoin Morgan to cause an upset.

But five losses from five games have triggered the blame game, and coach Simmons isn't prepared to be the fall guy. In a response to speculation that selector Dawlat Ahmadzai had blamed the coaching staff for the five failures, Simmons posted a brief statement on Twitter.

"I am in the middle of a World Cup and trying to get our team to perform to the level we expect but at the end of the World Cup I will tell the Afghanistan people about the part that Mr Dawlat Ahmadzai had to play in our preparation," Simmons wrote, "and his part in the dismissal of" former captain Asghar Afghan.

By Wednesday afternoon, the post had been removed. Simmons, a former West Indies allrounder who took over the Afghan national team in 2017, did describe speculation he'd asked to renew his contract beyond the World Cup as "fake news."

Afghanistan was on a high entering the tournament after wins over the West Indies in the World Cup qualifiers, and a tie with India at last year's Asian Cup. But a change of captain — long-time leader Asghar was replaced by Gulbadin Naib — drew criticism from senior players in the team.

All-rounder Mohammad Nabi posted on social media that a World Cup wasn't the time to change captains, particularly after the rise of Afghan cricket in the previous four years. Highly ranked wristspinner Rashid Khan described the timing of the change as irresponsible.

On the field, an opening loss to defending champion Australia was followed by losses to Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and top-ranked England. Afghanistan's leading bowler Rashid conceded a World Cup record 110 runs against England, which tallied a tournament-high total of 397-6 at Manchester. Morgan blitzed a World Cup record 17 sixes in his 148, and England cleared the boundary a one-day international record 25 times.

Veteran wicketkeeper opener Mohammad Shahzad was ruled out after two World Cup games because of injury, but later told Press Trust of India that didn't know why he was declared unfit. He also said Simmons wasn't told of the decision in advance.

Gulbadin has continued to find positives in Afghanistan's performances, including the country's World Cup high-total 247 against England. When the squad was announced, chief selector Ahmadzai defended his decision to appoint Naib as captain for the World Cup by saying it was in the best interests of the future.

Gulbadin, Simmons and co. aren't likely to get a break from the pressure any time soon. Afghanistan takes on 2011 champion India at Southampton on Saturday.

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