A few days back Japan were taking on Bhutan in the ICC World Cricket League Division 8. I chanced upon their scorecard – Japan scored 203 batting first and then bowled out Bhutan for 144. Now, you might wonder why in the middle of World T20 we are suddenly talking about Japan or Bhutan.
Well, one of the reasons for that is that in 2008, Afghanistan were playing in Division Five of the World Cricket League against Japan, Jersey, Singapore, Botswana and the Bahamas. While Japan have dropped down to Division 8, Afghanistan’s rise has been stunning – so much so that not qualifying for the tournament would have been a bit of a shock for them and the world of cricket at large.
Having been granted ODI status, they recently played two ODIs – the first saw them crash to defeat against Pakistan in February. They lost by seven wickets but come out thinking that Saeed Ajmal isn’t that big a deal.
The second saw them lose to Australia by 66 runs last month. Mohammad Nabi showed that having played tennis ball cricket from the age of ten in the refugee camps in Peshawar put him on pretty even terms with even Australian cricketers as he slammed 4 sixes in his 46.
And the shorter the format gets, the more a chance the free-hitting spirits of the Afghanistan team will have. Make no mistake; they like to go for their shots. If they go down, they will go down swinging. That’s the kind of cricket they play and in a sense, T20 is perfect for them.
“I would say T20 format is suitable format for my team. The shorter format, you can say, belongs to three batsmen or two bowlers who click on that particular day. We are here to expose ourselves and prove that we belong to this stage,” said Nawroz Mangal, the captain.
In T20 internationals – their record is six wins and five defeats, with losses against the only big teams they have played against – India and South Africa. But they have an advantage – with every match they play, they can only get better.
Mangal estimates the cricket-playing population of Afghanistan at more than 500,000. By way of comparison, New Zealand has around 100,000 registered cricketers. Now how many of the 500,000 take on the sport in a big way is the question that Afghanistan will be hoping to help answer in this tournament.
“After participating in this World Cup, if we do better I expect 30 to 40% of the population to start playing cricket.”
Afghanistan team manager Shafiqullah Stanikzai believes that the support back home is great.
“There is plenty of support for the team. Around 50-60 people have asked me for tickets, and every Afghan back home is supporting this team,” said Afghanistan team manager Shafiqullah Stanikzai on the eve of the match against India.
When Afghanistan take the field tomorrow, the opponent really won’t matter. They won’t care whether it’s India or England – in fact they have planned rather well.
“We have done good homework against the spinners. We have done brilliantly in the past against quality spinners. We played Ajmal in the Pak game and yesterday, we played Narine, and we haven’t seen any difficulties. We have done our homework against Ashwin. Hopefully the batters can cope up and deliver to the plans,” said Mangal.
When Dhoni was asked whether he had seen Afghanistan play recently, he smiled and said: “We saw them in the last World Cup.”
But Afghanistan have changed since then and they will relish the chance to show India and the world, just how much.