Ben Stokes has made it a habit of making up headlines.
In four days David Warner and Steve Smith will play competitive cricket for Australia for the first time since they used flexi 600 to shave down their reputations.
Most eyes will be on the Australians to see how they respond to the men’s new presence, but as the Australians play out the sporting equivalent of Paul Kelly’s ‘To Her Door’, the opposition awaiting them have no intentions of being a footnote.
Afghanistan have only been properly playing cricket since the early 90s. The Soviet invasion forced millions to the Peshawar region in the north of Pakistan. Many Afghans found themselves thrust into a different culture, with a different sport.
This coincided with Pakistan winning the 1992 world cup. All of sudden many young Afghans were caught up in the celebrations of this triumph and for the first time their lives were dominated by sport rather than war.
As more Afghans flowed back to their homes, cricket spread throughout Afghanistan. At first the Taliban banned cricket but the sport had become too popular, with the 2001 election of Hamid Karzai’s government, the ban was reversed, a cricket board was started and Afghanistan begin to play official matches.
Afghanistan’s journey has been nothing short of a Phoenix rising on a meteorite but it was nearly halted prematurely against the cricket powerhouse of Jersey. To qualify for 2011 world cup, Afghanistan would have to make their way through the five divisions of the World Cricket League.
This started the division five play offs on the Isle of Jersey. The squad included Mohammad Nabi, Asghar Afghan, Gulbadin Naib, Samiullah Shenwari, Hamid Hassan and Noor Ali Zadran who are all in the squad for this tournament. They narrowly defeated Jersey when they chased down 83 8 down to start their climb to ODI status.
For many of the group it was their first international travel. There’s a moment in the documentary Out of the Ashes where the team explore the beaches and Mohammad Nabi, now of Melbourne Renegades fame with over 100 ODI wickets to his name, picks up a shell.
With childlike wonder, Nabi asks for the English word for the slippery seaside skeleton.
In cricketing terms Afghanistan’s efforts have been herculean, but what gets lost in a lot of the discussion is the incredible cultural upheaval that international cricket has caused for the Afghans.
Lunch and tea are vital aspects to cricket’s core, but in Jersey the Afghans curiously circle the lunch table as if it fell from out of space.
Careful to not eat any pork, they skip the carb-heavy feast and stay safe and eat the fruit. For the entire three-week tournament, many only eat fruit. It’s this cautious curiosity of the West that underlines their rise to Test nation and it will continue to play out.
It will be interesting to see how the conservative board (and country) manage the relationships with their stars who spend most of the year in wildly different liberal democracies.
The Afghanistan Cricket Board have made controversial decisions, such as demoting Asghar Afghan from captain in all formats and replacing him with Gulbadin Naib for ODI, Rahmat Shah at Test level and Rashid Khan for T20s.
Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan criticised the decision but have since fallen in line, some fans felt Asghar was passed his use by date anyway. The board have been criticised with allegations of nepotism and rewarding the sycophants.
The board strongly deny these allegations but some selections do raise questions. Case in point, Noor Ali Zadran, who was dropped in 2017 after failing to score more than 10 in 20 innings as an opener has been picked in the squad.
A walking wicket against spin, the board claim he was picked to provide experience for the excitable dressing room. Ala the Australian Cricket Board, it would be easier for the fans to digest if they just picked the 15 best players. Ad hoc appointments based on gut feeling can be complex to convey and sow suspicion and distrust in fans.
The newly appointed captain Gulbadin Naib once had ambitions to be a body builder like Arnold Schwarzenegger, with pectorals the size of dinner plates, he has been in and out of the side since 2008.
A peculiar appointment as captain, it wouldn’t have escaped the realms of possibility if he wasn’t in the starting XI. Naib averages a touch over 20 with the bat and bowls medium pace, it is hoped the seamer will be well suited to English conditions.
The exciting part of Afghanistan is that unlike Ireland and Scotland, they’re best players are young.
Opener Hazratalluh Zazai has the frame of a door and the aggression of a troublesome teen slamming one, a powerful stance at the crease he will drag anything less than a foot outside off through mid wicket.
With a high score 162* in T20 against Ireland, he will not fear Starc and Cummins and will seek to use the pace of the ball to try to hit passing cars in Bristol. In a recent warm ODI, Pakistan pace bowler Shaheen Afridi sought to offer him a few words of advice after a bouncer narrowly missed his gloves, he nonchalantly waved him back to his mark and hit him for four taking 20 off the over.
Along with the much hyped Rashid Khan, Zazai encapsulates why Afghanistan have rocketed through the rankings – they’re supremely confident, arrogant even in the belief of their abilities. They have never entered a tournament to make up the numbers, they believe they can beat any side.
The side have several elite cricketers sprinkled through their side. Opening the batting alongside Zazai is the generously built wicketkeeper Mohammad Shahzad, who uses his quick wrists to helicopter every ball to the boundary. He is about as conventional as fixing a whipper snipper motor to a push bike, but just as dangerous. Enjoy him hitting 74* off 16 against a Shane Watson skippered UAE T10 side.
A fast start will be followed by Rahmat Shah who will play a Handscombe type roll nudging the ball through the middle overs as Najibullah Zadran and Hashmattulah Shahidi look to pick up the pace.
Asghar Afghan, the captain Gulbadin Naib and Mohammad Nabi will provide support, but if they are to post a big score, the opening pair and younger middle order batsman will have to score.
Alongside Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman is the other young spinner. Bowling with more flight than his more celebrated teammate, the Brisbane Heat’s Rahman uses a number of variations and looks to slide a quicker one through bat and pad.
With Maxwell the only confident player of spin in the Australian side, it would not be surprising if the Afghans opened with either the two youngers to slow the Australian innings from the start.
Afghanistan’s fielding can be sublime and subpar, if the men in the outfield hold on to their chances, these two spinners could make an Australian chase anxious.
Much like the Carlton list, the Afghan side have a big gap between the best five and their bottom five. It would be amiss to rank them too strongly against the well rounded Australian side, however with the Australian team playing with the outward pride and confidence of a school child who’s just wet themselves, a talented, brash and young Afghan side will look to get on top from ball one.
Patrick will be following everyone’s second side for the world cup. If you’re Afghani, get in touch – would love to hear your thoughts on the team.