Asghar Afghan’s side may be shedding their underdog status, but they have not lost their pluck. Four years ago in Bangladesh, Afghanistan’s first (and currently only) appearance at the tournament, the air was still thick with fairy dust. The world was just waking up to what Afghanistan had achieved, barely a decade after their first official international match (a four wicket loss to Oman at the 2004 ACC Trophy) they had qualified for the 50-over World Cup by securing a second-place finish in the World Cricket League Championship just months before, with two crushing wins over Kenya - cricket’s last, fast-fading fairytale.
In a way it was the narrative that got them to Bangladesh, by invitation rather than qualification, the story of their road from the refugee camps proving too compelling to resist for the ACC. They accredited themselves well as fearless but unfancied underdogs, coming back from a heavy opening defeat at the hands of Pakistan to shock the hosts in their second match, Afghan (then still known as Stankizai), Samiullah Shenwari and Mohammad Nabi – all veterans of their first ever match – leading them to a 32-run win, their first over a full member nation.
As a full member they now return to the tournament, (having been beaten to the sole qualifier’s spot by the UAE in the 2016 T20 edition of the tournament) and though their odds of lifting the trophy are still at some distance, they are far from rank outsiders this time round. The audacity and pluck they showed in 2014 is now an assured, even arrogant confidence.
Back in March, at the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe, they booked a berth at the regrettably diminished Cricket World Cup ahead of two other full members, to the surprise of few, trouncing Ireland in a de-facto semi-final with a swaggering nonchalance that belied their early form in the tournament.
When they knocked over the West Indies in the final, teenage spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman ripping through the Windies line-up and Mohammad Shahzad’s breezy 84 setting up a comfortable 7-wicket win, they looked so effortlessly dominant that by the end of the final most had already forgotten how lucky they were to get there.
Afghanistan have won nine of their twelve ODIs against fellow full-members this year, most recently besting Ireland 2-1 away, and Bangladesh, against whom they will play their second match, were on the receiving end of a 3-0 whitewash in the pair’s recent T20 series in Hyderabad. Afghanistan may be a long shot for the 2018 title, but they head into the tournament more as dark horse contenders than colourful also-rans.
Their climb up the ODI rankings may not have matched their success in T20s, they remain tenth in the standings behind both their Group B rivals Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and their experience against top-tier teams remains limited. Nonetheless in Rashid Khan, they currently boast the top-ranked ODI bowler in the world, and with Mujeeb and Nabi backing him up there is a case to be made that Afghanistan’s slow-bowling attack is arguably the strongest in international white-ball cricket at the moment.
Nonetheless old weaknesses remain. Even against Associate opposition Afghanistan have been prone to batting collapses, and few of their senior batsmen can boast much form. The trouble starts at the top for the batting line-up, of the three different combinations they tested during the Ireland series, the 17-run stand produced by Ishanullah and Hazratullah Zazai was the most successful opening partnership, and Zazai won’t be travelling to the UAE. The ebullient Mohammad Shahzad, the most experienced of the opening options, has been struggling both behind the stumps and with the bat of late. Not to forget that 84 against the West Indies in March this year is his last double-digit score in ODIs. His ability to throw opening bowlers off that stride at any level, together with a lack of better options at the top likely means his spot is safe, though he may come under pressure for the gloves from young keeper-bat Munir Ahmad, who has been scoring heavily in domestic cricket.
Afghan himself, now deep into his thirties has had his place questioned near continuously in recent months, though the side’s near-calamitous group stage at the WC Qualifier when he was sidelined with appendicitis rather underlined the importance of his experience and captaincy. More broadly though the old guard have not reliably produced runs in recent times, and much depends on young guns such as Ishanullah, Hashmatullah Shahidi and Rahmat Shah for delivering the goods with the bat.
In the pace department a growing sick-list has exacerbated a traditional weakness, with famous faces like Shapoor Zadran and the perennially injured Hamid Hassan again absent, Dawlat Zadran also ruled out with a reported knee problem, and promising young right-armer Wafadar Momand ruled out with a back strain, the Afghan pace reserves look thin. Aftab Alam is there as the senior seamer, whilst Yamin Ahmadzai - who has been a stand-out performer with the red ball for Afghanistan - has been called up to join the squad. His white ball experience at international level is limited however, and left-arm quick Sayed Shirzad is a relative newcomer, yet to make his ODI debut.
With the UAE themselves missing out, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the closest thing the tournament has to a home side, and traditionally the Afghan diaspora in the Emirates have made the team feel that way. Familiarity with the conditions where they have played many of their “home” matches may yet lend them a much needed edge, but they can no longer count on opponents underestimating them. Afghanistan’s story has been told too much for that. They have made it to the game’s top table now and will be looking to tuck in. A flawed team still, but nobody will be thinking of them as fodder.
Afghanistan Squad: Asghar Afghan (c), Mohammad Shahzad (wk), Javed Ahmadi, Ihsanullah Janat, Rahmat Shah, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Najibullah Zadran, Samiullah Shinwari, Munir Ahmad, Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Rashid Khan, Sharafuddin Ashraf, Mujeeb ur Rahman, Aftab Alam, Sayed Shirzad, Yamin Ahmadzai