Sometimes you need to do badly to see how far you still have to go and to work out have far you have come. Afghanistan have had an excellent World T20 so far, winning all three games of their qualifying round and pushing Sri Lanka close in the first match of the tournament proper. Against South Africa they conceded 209 and lost by 37 runs.
But, yet again, they never looked out of place.
South Africa had several of the best T20 batsmen in the world in their ranks. Going into this game, Hashim Amla was averaging 123 in T20Is in 2016. Of all the teams in this group, the South Africans with their pace bowlers would present the stiffest test for the Afghanistan team. They lost but they pushed. Better teams win more often than not, and South Africa are a very good team.
This is the second time that South Africa have played Afghanistan in T20Is. The first time was six years ago and the Afghans were bowled out for 80. Here they really scared their opponents. When Samiullah Shenwari fell for a 14-ball 25 thereby ending any slim hopes Afghanistan had of reaching their victory target there, was a visible sigh of relief from catcher David Wiese.
The cricket world still doesn’t seem to understand what Afghanistan represents. Sanjay Manjrekar, former Indian Test batsman, wrote for ESPNCricinfo that he thought that only teams of “genuine international quality” should be the ones that compete at the highest level. Quite what that term means is open to some interpretation, but as Afghanistan are the ninth ranked side in T20 internationals it would be safe to assume that they fit in that bracket.
Not for Manjrekar though, who says “the more matches teams like Afghanistan play, the quicker they will become truly international class.” He doesn’t think they are there yet and as he suggests in the same piece that we should “give them the chance occasionally to test themselves against the big guns of the sport” it seems unlikely that the odd game will allow them to develop to a level where he thinks they are worthy. It would appear that Manjrekar was trying to be broadly supportive of the expansionist agenda, but he did so with a large dollop of condescension and without a real understanding of where Afghanistan now sit in world cricket.
Despite an absence of fixtures against the top sides outside of events like the World T20 Afghanistan are competing. They are pushing the very best teams and that happens more and more as they spend more time in the rarefied air of international cricket.
Every time this Afghanistan side are given the chance on the highest possible stage they are better than the last time they appeared. And despite that they are still treated as if they are a poor relative to whom you have kindly given your damp spare room to sleep in.
They conceded 209 runs at the Wankhede Stadium on Sunday afternoon, but that is fewer runs than either South Africa or England conceded at the same venue on Friday night. When they got going with a chase that would challenge any side -- a total of 200 has been achieved to win a match just nine times in 542 international T20 matches -- they did so with so much excitement and aggression.
Mohammad Shahzad was second place, just three percent behind MS Dhoni, in a fan poll judging the best wicket-keeper/batsmen in this tournament. It would seem that the fans of the game get it more than some of the cricketing media, and as Shahzad blasted 44 runs from 19 balls you could see why he has fans excited. Yet by Manjrekar’s way of thinking he should get the chance to hit five sixes and three fours against South Africa only occasionally.
In this tournament so far we have rarely seen a truly close contest, almost every match has petered out towards the end. England struggling to score the final run needed for victory against South Africa hid the fact that they chased 230 with relative ease. India’s loss to New Zealand was spectacular, but it wasn’t close.
The real excitement in sport comes from seeing the unexpected, and as Afghanistan scored at more than 10 an over for the first half of their innings against South Africa we got that, and then some. And yet we see articles, tweets and commentary that question their worth.
Lawrence Booth wrote in the Editors Notes of the 2014 Wisden that “sport’s pleasure resides in meaning so much to so many, while being essentially meaningless in itself.”
What Afghanistan brought to Mumbai in this match against better funded, better supported and better paid opponents was meaning. So much so that it was palpable. A win for them against South Africa would have been seismic, even though there are only five spaces between them in the ICC rankings. While the South Africans are not part of the “Big Three” boards of India, England and Australia they are very much 'cricket-haves' to Afghanistan's 'have-nots.'
Once again Afghanistan were not outclassed and once again I am making a defence of why they should not only be welcomed to these kind of events but should be given a place by right. It says so much about the conservative and ultra-orthodox nature of cricket, those that follow it and those that are paid to cover it, that this point even needs to made again.
Afghanistan do not need condescension and a few crumbs thrown to them from on high. The only reason to not embrace them and any other of the emerging cricketing nations stems from a desire to maintain a status quo that given time will kill of international cricket as a spectacle. People will be bored of England playing India playing Australia playing England again. They will turn to T20 domestic leagues that have already started to embrace players from associate nations.
Every game that Afghanistan get makes the injustice of the fact they have to fight for more all the more ridiculous.