It was a hot, sunny afternoon at Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium when South Africa elected to bat against Qualifier Afghanistan in the ICC World Twenty20 2016. The fancied South Africa batting line up against associates Afghans seemed like an exciting prospect for the sparse crowd – the neutral fans who had come for an entertaining game of cricket. There were talks of ‘AB maarega’ (AB de Villiers will hit shots) and ‘do sau banega’ (South Africa will make 200) in the stands.
But there was a sizeable section of the crowd, colorfully attired with painted faces and waving flags, who hoped for a different outcome. After all, they had traveled a long way to see Afghanistan play, the team that many referred to as underdogs, minnows, associates and questioned their presence at a world event. But this team, their representative on this global stage, had upheld their belief making it to the Super 10 stage, and these fans were not going to let them down.
They were everywhere - groups of Afghan fans entering the stadium in colourful Pathani suits, bright kurtas, fancy headgears, outnumbering the South African counterparts. A massive contingent of Afghan fans were seated in the top tier of the Sunil Gavaskar Stand (popularly known as the East Stand) armed with several national flags including one long cloth banner that fluttered manically every time a shot was hit, a Protean wicket fell.
The enthusiasm in their stadium manner was infectious – when the national anthem played, when the Afghan XI walked in to field, when Dawlat Zadran ran in to bowl, when Shahpur Zadran was placed at the boundary nearest to them.
But the highlight was Faf du Plessis’ wicket. The South African captain had blasted his way to 41 off 30 balls when he was he was run out in the tenth over. The giant screen played the replay of the run while the third umpire made the decision, and as soon as they saw the Du Plessis was short, a large roar erupted in the stands. The Afghan contingent in our stand waved their flags and danced and cheered like there was no tomorrow. The players on field were not very different in their celebration.
In that moment one could see how much these little victories in the big game meant to Afghanistan.
These Afghan supports had come from a long way to cheer for their country. A majority of them said they were students studying in India and a large section came from colleges in Pune and Banaglore. One middle-aged man said he had come all the way from Kabul to watch the match. When asked if were they confident that Afghanistan would qualify for the main draw, all of them smiled and said they were, without a shred of doubt. Such was their faith that many young fans said they had their tickets booked and travels arranged in advance, even before their team qualified. And their faith was repaid as Afghanistan aced the qualifiers beating full ICC member Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Scotland. Not only did they make it to the Super 10, they played with such unbridled passion that they made fans out of many, many neutral supporters.
Throughout the match against South Africa, it was this unbridled passion of the Afghan fans that raised the level of the game for me as a spectator. The bright cluster of fans cheered every run made by their batsmen. Every run saved by their fielders received the same applause. The wickets were another story all together, even though only five fell. They fiercely chanted the names of their players with cries of ‘Shahpur’ and ‘Shahzad’ renting the air periodically. When the rest of the stadium chanted ‘AB, AB’, they were mingled with shouts of ‘Nabi, Nabi’, and if you have ever been to game at Wankhede, you’ll realize just how loud the Afghans would have to be heard in the frenzy of de Villiers’ boundaries.
They merrily danced to the Bollywood and Marathi and Punjabi songs played after boundaries and wickets, scarcely knowing what they meant (they even got excited every time ‘Afghan Jalebi’ from Phantom played which reinforced my belief that they definitely don’t know what the songs mean) They were bravely optimistic in the innings break, facing a stiff target of 210 and surprise, surprise, just as cheerful after the match, despite losing by a mere 37 runs. That’s what sets these groups of fans apart – they didn’t expect their team to beat South Africa, they came to support the, cheer for them and got their money’s worth in the gritty display by Afghanistan.
Of course this is not the first time that Afghanistan are playing on this players. They have played in the group stages of the ICC Word Twenty20 in 2010 and 2012, meeting India, England and South Africa. They had qualified for the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup in Australia as well, and put up a decent show - the highlight for them (and perhaps of the tournament) being their win over Scotland. In fact, whenever they have got the attention of international cricket community, Afghanistan has rarely failed to impress.
But this impressive performance is enhanced by the fact that it is a team like Afghanistan. Not because or despite they belong to one of the most dangerous countries in the world for civilians, where many of them have been witness to war, violence and poverty, and not even because they made it out of the strife and brought their battered nation into the limelight of sport. But because they, as sportspersons, bring to the field a zest — the passion that makes sports worth watching. The Afghan cricketers are players whose mix of skill and spunk and spirit makes you want to see more of them, this is a team you want to see play often and against tough opponents, just to watch and enjoy the sheer determination they put in their game.
To quote Peter Millier in an earlier Firstpost article, Afghanistan has won the World Cup by qualifying for the main draw. Yet, they have done more, wanted more and shown that they deserve more.
Not one of Afghanistan's first three Super 10 games were completely one-sided, despite being against much better sides. Against Sri Lanka and England, as against South Africa, they put up a fight, they came tantalizingly close and almost had us hoping for an upset.
They had England, the same team that had chased down 229 against South Africa, for 85 for 7 for in 15 overs. They managed to restrict a rampaging South Africa to 209 when England had conceded 20 more a few days back. And had it not been for Dilshan, they would have had Sri Lanka on the mat in the opener after a commanding batting display scoring 153. In all three games, there were times when they looked good enough to threaten an upset. In all three games, they looked better than their last outing.
And that 'upset' finally came in their fourth and final match, against table-toppers and semifinalists West Indies no less.
They were restricted to 123, but Najibullah Zadran's 45 off 40 kept them afloat, showing the depth of heir batting order. The six-wicket victory was largely due to some tidy bowling, especially Amir Hamza's exceptional figures of 4-0-9-1, showing their bowling prowess. They played the full 20 overs and managed to restrict one of the most flamboyant T20I side, a testament to their sharp fielding.
In other words, Afghanistan played good, old-fashioned cricket really well.
In this World T20, the plucky Afghans have shown that there is no lack of skill or consistency or guidance. Under the watchful eye of coach Inzamam ul-Haq, who should be largely credited for this fighting unit and Manoj Prabhakar, Afghanistan have improved tremendously. Afghanistan don’t lack in self-belief either, as their captain Asghar Stanikzai said. "So we are showing that we are a competitive side. In this World Cup we are not just here to make up the numbers. Our games were not one sided. Our aim is to win at least a match against a full member. All teams are scared of us. They are wary that we can beat them," Stanikzai had said before the West Indies game.
And the team backed their captain's words with their work, beating former Champions West Indies. Admittedly, it was an already-qualified West Indies sans wrecker-in-chief Chris Gayle, but it was still a the full member side. Their enthusiastic celebrations after the win (special mention to Shahzad's dance with Gayle) and Darren Sammy and co's smiles showed once again just how much this big victory in the little 'academic' game means to the team in particular, and cricket in general.
In time and with the continued efforts of the team and support staff, the ever-improving ‘Blue Tigers’ will emerge stronger, a pattern we have seen with Bangladesh in the not so recent past. With Associates putting in strong performances and cricket legends like Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar taking up the cause of giving them more playing time, we might just get to see more of teams like Afghanistan.
It is an exciting thought for a cricket fan — more batsmen like Mohammad Shahzad hitting big shots all over the park, more spinners like Rashid Khan baffling batsmen, and more enthusiastic fans travelling the world cheering for their team.
Cricket will be changed, for good, when Afghanistan's exuberance will meet experience. As Mohammad Nabi summed it up in a tweet, they have had enough of winning the hearts of cricket fans, so they will start winning matches now.