A symbol to the nation, heroes to the cricket world, the story of the Afghanistan National Cricket Team is one of hope, desire and belief.
The popularity of the sport in the region only began to surge at the turn of the century as a way for the people to combat the grim realities of their lives. Afghanistan is a nation torn apart by war, harsh environmental conditions and an economy that was struggling to keep pace with the rest of the world.
When they were playing the game, all their worries disappeared, their troubles evaporated, at least momentarily. Cricket was their escape, their balm, and at least for a short period of time, they knew joy when they were involved in the game they loved.
The national team, formed in 2001, quickly earned their stripes. Slotted in Division 5 of the World Cricket League – the lowest division recognised by the ICC at the time- in May 2008, they earned One Day International status only a year later when they defeated Namibia by 21 runs. They continued to press forward and tasted success at the Associate Level- a notch below the full member nations- by winning numerous trophies and making the cricket world sit up and take notice.
A first global tournament appearance beckoned and that materialised when they entered the T20 World Cup in 2010. It was followed up by a spirited performance against India in the next T20 World Cup in 2012. Finally in 2016, they secured their first major scalp, when they stunned eventual champions West Indies in the T20 World Cup.
The Afghans then added another feather in their cap when they made their 50 over World Cup debut in 2015 and completed their first win of the tournament when they defeated fellow associates Scotland by one wicket.
They would continue to make steady progress over the years and the icing on the cake would appear in 2018, in the form of firstly gaining Test status – and playing their first Test against the World’s top ranked Test team – India.
Secondly, another milestone came when they qualified for this year’s World Cup by defeating the West Indies in the final of the World Cup qualifying event.
As if that was not enough, the warriors from the mountains continued to make 2018 an unforgettable year when they defeated Test-playing nations and big brothers Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, before giving favourites and eventual champions India a real scare, by holding on for a tie in the final league game.
2019 has already begun on a promising note for them with a first Test win against fellow new member nation Ireland, followed by an ODI series win against the same opposition.
The rise and rise of Afghanistan has been nothing short of a fairytale.
So, what’s next for these lion-hearted cricketers?
The World Cup is without doubt the single most significant event in a cricketer’s life and victory in this tournament will not only define their careers but also determine their country’s destiny in the game.
If you doubt the validity of that statement, then you have to look no further than Kapil Dev and his World Cup-winning Indian team of 1983, what it did for the sport back home.
So, if they say now that they’re aiming to win it and not just compete, only a fool would mock them and wave them away.
After all, this is a team that has overcome tremendous odds to move up the cricket ladder in the most emphatic manner.
They have achieved so much with so little in such a short amount of time. The rapid strides they have made in the game is indeed testimony to their ambition, confidence and determination.
So what do the Afghans have going for them?
Well, for starters they possess the world’s top ranked all-rounder – who is also the best leg-spinner in the world – Rashid Khan. His ability to take crucial wickets whenever his team needs it along with his potential to contribute late order runs with his explosive batting, makes him the most vital cog in Afghanistan’s wheel.
The Afghans also have in their ranks the world’s third ranked all-rounder in Mohammad Nabi. The former captain is a wily off-spinner – opening the bowling consistentl y- and is always among the wickets, while maintaining a decent economy rate.
He is also an important middle-order batsman coming in at no.6 and can switch gears easily depending on the situation. He, without doubt, is worth his weight in gold to this outfit and will be another key figure if Afghanistan are to progress deep into the tournament.
Another ace up their sleeve is their mystery spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman. The tall and gangly off-break bowler is a much better version of a mystery bowler than Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis ever was.
His beautiful loop combined with his ability to extract bounce – owing to his height – and his variety, will keep the batsmen guessing. He is a genuine wicket taker and match-winner.
Perhaps the most entertaining player in the team is wicketkeeper batsman Mohammad Shahzad. An explosive opening batsman, he sets up the team’s innings by giving it the impetus it needs, with blistering starts.
His destructive batsmanship relieves the pressure on the batsmen who follow and demoralises opponents. He has been crucial to the team’s success thus far and will once again play a pivotal role in his team’s campaign.
Another former captain Asghar Afghan is the rock around which the team’s batting revolves. He provides the stability and solidity among a bevy of stroke players. A calming influence in the side, the senior member and ex-skipper, will also be a valuable resource for the captain to fall back on, should his experience and expertise in planning tactical moves and strategies be required.
Finally in their armoury is their pacemen, namesakes Dawlat Zadran and Noor Ali Zadran along with captain Gulabdin Naib. Despite lacking genuine pace, they’re all big-hearted performers and will be vital in giving their team the important breakthroughs.
The Afghans will be playing for something much bigger than themselves when they take the field at The World Cup. A victory here will not only bring them glory but it will be a shot in the arm for the growth of the game back in their homeland. Triumph will bring the much-needed funds the country needs to invest in infrastructure and build more facilities for the sport to continue to grow.
It will turn the hope of a better tomorrow into a reality for their countrymen, who aspire to follow in their heroes’ footsteps. But irrespective of whether they win or not, they will continue to inspire a nation like they have with their wonderful exploits. Motivation is definitely not an issue.
So do they have what it takes to go all the way? The Afghans play the game the way they live – fearlessly. That is why no team can afford to take them lightly.
While most people might think that they are still a few years away from being crowned champions, their fans and cricket romantics all over the world would be hoping that the underdogs would turn top dogs by the time the World Cup comes to an end.
After all, what is a fairytale without a happy ending?