Afghanistan have already won their World Cup. Winning all three of their games in the group stage and making it into the main draw was massive for Afghanistan; they will now have more fixtures against top opposition in the next two weeks than they have had in the last two years.
Yes, they have played Zimbabwe a fair amount of late, but games against the likes of England, West Indies, South Africa and Sri Lanka are rarer than an afternoon on Twitter without being subjected to abuse.
That is not to patronise them in anyway, it is just being honest. The chances of them getting to the semi-finals against teams that have several times the funding, several times the experience and much better infrastructure are slim. They may upset a team along the way, but this is a great opportunity for them to play against the best teams in the world, and this type of opportunity is getting rarer and rarer for the lower-ranked Full Member sides, let alone Associate teams.
In many ways, the Afghanistan players have more responsibility than any other team in the tournament; they are the standard bearers for the Associate sides. The excuse that is given for this horrific format that makes teams that have already qualified play among themselves to qualify again is that Associate sides are not capable of competing. This has been disproved time and time again, but Afghanistan would be expected to disprove it once more.
So it was all of this baggage being dragged along behind them that Afghanistan took the field against Sri Lanka. The pressure on them to compete was immense, a big loss would be used as ammunition to question their presence at the event, after all of the hoops they have been made to jump through to get here in the first place.
They started badly, with the talismanic Mohammad Shahzad falling for just 12. The opening batsman had made 138 runs in three innings in the qualifying round and was the person most responsible for Afghanistan making it this far. His wicket was a massive loss. Without Shahzad, there was not the lightening start that the Afghans achieved against Zimbabwe, Hong Kong and Scotland. When Mohammad Nabi fell to the last ball of the 11th over to a Rangana Herath top spinner that trapped him leg-before, the Afghans were 51-4.
Inexperienced sides playing at the highest level crumble in these situations. Afghanistan are no longer one of those teams. Instead they rebuilt, recovered and accelerated. The partnership of 61 from 33 balls between Samiullah Shenwari and Asghar Stanikzai was breath-taking. It was the cornerstone of the 102 runs in nine overs that took their team to a reasonable total when it looked like they could be bowled out for less than 100. A target of 153 was not daunting, but it was competitive.
It didn’t prove to be enough, as a brilliant innings of unbeaten 83 from Tillakaratne Dilshan saw Sri Lanka home but Afghanistan were in the match for large portions of the Sri Lankan chase. The most impressive of the bowlers was 17-year-old leg-spinner Rashid Khan.
Not that he looks 17, he looks like a weary office worker in his late thirties. He doesn’t bowl like a 17-year-old either. He is smart and consistent and bowls far fewer bad balls than leg-spinners that are close to twice his age.
Afghanistan didn’t win. They didn’t score enough runs. But they pushed hard. They showed that they are one of the best T20 teams in the international game. Their spinners bowled well and while their top order failed against Sri Lanka on Thursday evening, the lower order played brilliantly. So far in this event there has not been a close game between two of the Full Member teams, there was more moments of genuine struggle between these two sides than anything we have seen so far, and one was a lowly Associate.
Afghanistan may have won their World Cup but that says more about how cricket perceives them than it does about how good they are as a cricket team. They belong here. This is their stage. Mohammad Shahzad’s exhilarating, infuriating and outright reckless batting deserves to be seen by every cricket fan in the world, as often as possible. Rashid Khan’s round arm leg-spin, middle-aged body and teenage enthusiasm should be enjoyed worldwide. Asghar Stanikzai’s captaincy has blossomed under the spotlight of this tournament, he can only get better.
There is something so perverse about the way Afghanistan continue to confound expectation and jump over every hurdle but still get nothing back from the sport to which they give so much. They lost today and even that was going against the script that has been written by the men that run the sport. Ideally they don’t win or even come close to winning and the exclusion of emerging nations can continue to be justified. Them pushing Sri Lanka close, or God forbid, beat one of the opponents they have left to face only makes the clamour for change all the louder.
Associates deserve a place in global tournaments even if they do not compete; it is how you inspire cricketers in emerging countries to take up the game. But they are competing, and in fact the risk of these teams doing well against the bigger teams and ruining the party is the real reason that they aren’t welcome.
Afghanistan are playing at the biggest Twenty20 tournament in the world. They deserved to be there. In every possible sense.