Stories of Afghanistan’s rise from the lowest rung of the international cricket have been told time and time again. And it is a story good enough to be retold a thousand times. The fact that these men learnt the game in refugee camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border has been much discussed. It is a great story, but no longer the only story.
This is a very good cricket team, plain and simple. Afghanistan are currently ranked ninth in the ICC T20 rankings, above Test nations Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that they would be placed higher had they had more fixtures against higher-ranked teams. The Afghans have made it to the main draw of the World T20 and they deserve their berth.
They beat Zimbabwe to qualify for the tournament proper and it wasn’t a surprise. This was the fifth time that the two teams met in T20 Internationals and fifth time that Afghanistan have emerged victorious. Afghan players have become world class performers, albeit with varying levels of consistency.
You begin performing somewhere close to your best when you play regularly against the best teams. For Afghanistan there is some hope that they will now get more bilateral fixtures against Full Member oppositions as they have been moved from the World Cricket League structure and placed on the ODI rankings list but they still get nowhere near the number of fixtures that the lower-ranked Full Members get and a tiny fraction of the games the Big 3 of India, Australia and England play.
The team itself is an interesting mix. The seam bowling is well stocked with Hamid Hassan’s back of length seamers at a decent pace and the more bustling quick stuff of Dawlat Zadran. But in India, the spin bowling will prove to be more decisive, especially as pitches get more worn as the tournament progresses.
Afghanistan have the unusual round-arm leg-breaks of 17-year-old Rashid Khan and the more orthodox leggies of Samiullah Shenwari in the spin department. There is also the ever-impressive former captain Mohammad Nabi. His wily off breaks often get batsmen into trouble.
Nabi isn’t a big turner of the ball but has the ability to get it to dip late on batsmen. Along with his bowling prowess, his batting is also a calming influence and he can dig his side out of trouble if the top order fails. Nabi’s 52 against Zimbabwe in Saturday’s final qualifying match in Nagpur did just that.
The Afghanistan top order is brilliantly exciting and excitingly inconsistent. The undoubted star is Mohammad Shahzad who keeps the wicket and opens the batting. In the past he has swung so hard that he has found it difficult to stay on his feet, and he would still rather hit a six and play out five dots than try and look for six singles, but he has become better at rotating the strike.
Shahzad has the ability to really embarrass the opening bowlers of West Indies, England and Sri Lanka in the Super 10s. The extra pace of Dale Steyn when they face South Africa may present him with more difficulties though.
Afghanistan may not win another game in this event but they are more than capable of pulling off an upset if they can get everyone firing.
Sri Lanka have been struggling of late and are ripe for the picking; England’s brilliant but inconsistent batting could struggle against the Afghan spin; the West Indies are missing many of their best players and South Africa have a history of underperforming at ICC events. A win in the Super 10 would be massive for Afghan cricket and anyone with an ounce of romanticism in their heart will be hoping for at least one.
More than anything else, Afghanistan have done a fine job at once again highlighting the ridiculous way this tournament is structured by winning all three of their matches and beating the Full Member team in their group. This format is an Ersatz version of a World Cup, and once again the Associate nations have proved that.
In between global events, associate teams struggle for coverage, often their tournaments have just one journalist in attendance, sometimes none at all. Cricket rewards them by making it abundantly clear they are a side show. Having qualified for this event playing each other, they must re-qualify playing amongst themselves. It is no surprise that a few days of decent coverage and there is uproar about the way cricket behaves towards emerging teams.
Afghanistan are a team of refugees that have risen quickly and now compete at the highest level. In any other sport it would be a marketing dream and the rights sold for a Hollywood movie, in cricket they are treated like rowdy children forced to sit at the kiddie table at a family event. Afghanistan are the men cricket needs, but not ones that cricket deserves.