Spare a thought for cricket’s youngest nation Afghanistan, who created quite a few upsets before bowing out of the Asia Cup in style. With a bit of luck and more experience, they could have reached the final of the six-nation tournament that will come to an end with Friday’s final between Bangladesh and India.
Honestly, not many had expected the Afghans to go beyond the first round. But they had planned well against each opponent and caused quite a few stirs. First, they sent five-time champions Sri Lanka home early. Captain Angelo Mathews was axed from the ODI side a few days after the defeat. Half a dozen Sri Lankan players were also dropped and more heads will roll in coaching staff down the line.
Then they stunned Bangladesh with a clinical performance to finish top of Group ‘B’ and in the Super Four stage suffered defeats at the hands of Pakistan and Bangladesh in the last over. The Afghans played within their limits, gave all that they had, were clinical on the field and more exposure would certainly help them to cross the line in challenges to come in the future. They bowed out having pushed India to the limit in their last game, perhaps the best game in the competition so far, ending with a tie.
Come next June in England they could upset a few teams at the World Cup, having now become a force to be reckoned in world cricket. Afghanistan are no more pushovers and will make an impact at the World Cup.
The Under-19 Asia Cup that will get underway in Bangladesh shortly will give a chance to take a further look at next generation of Afghanistan cricketers. A few of them will be fast-tracked into the senior side as well.
The performances of several Afghanistan players stood out and Rashid Khan was the star performer. Rashid is not a big turner of the ball, but bowls quickish leg-breaks and deceives batsmen with a well disguised googly. The leg-spinner, who turned 20 recently, has benefited by playing franchise cricket around the world and county cricket in England. He brings in a wealth of experience to the side and the opponents struggled to pick him.
Rashid finished as the highest wicket-taker in the competition, a commendable feat given that there were some formidable bowlers in the tournament. His ten wickets came at an average of 17 and an economy rate below 4. Impressive stats in a day and age where limited-overs' cricket is dominated by batsmen. Rashid was well supported by off-spinner Mujeeb ur Rahman, the nephew of Noor Ali. The 17—year-old took seven wickets in the tournament.
With the two spinners providing 20 solid overs, Afghanistan could contain teams. Quality fast bowling was what they lacked and their campaign was affected due to the absence of pacers Shapoor Zadran and Dawlat Zadran, who are nursing injuries. The team will be better off when the duo returns and that is why they are the dark horse at the World Cup.
Their batting revolves around Mohammad Shahzad, Hashmatullah Shahidi, and Asghar Afghan. Shahzad, the stocky wicketkeeper-batsman, smashed an entertaining 124 against India including 11 fours and seven sixes. Shahidi was consistent, knocking up three half-centuries in the tournament, while Afghan provided assurance to the side in the middle order.
The evergreen Mohammad Nabi, the only player from Afghanistan to feature in more than 100 ODIs, helps to balance the side with his all-round ability.
They are in good hands for the 12th edition of cricket’s showpiece event, but there are a few issues at their hands. According to the ICC’s Future Tour Programme, Afghanistan are only slotted to play just one series against a full member of the ICC. That too against Ireland, and that’s not the ideal preparation for an event like the World Cup.
Afghanistan have taken giant strides in the sport in a short span. Lack of opportunities is going to affect their progress moving forward. Authorities need to make sure that Afghanistan don’t suffer the same fate as Kenya.
The Kenyans put up a superb exhibition in the 2003 edition of the World Cup which they co-hosted with neighbours Zimbabwe and South Africa. It was a strong Kenyan side comprising Maurice Odumbe, Steve Tikolo, Thomas Odoyo, and Collins Obuya. They beat three full members of the ICC reached the semi-finals of the event.
But from thereon, Kenya had fewer opportunities and just faded away. Sport’s administrators need to learn lessons from the Kenyan episode and need to make sure that teams like Afghanistan don’t suffer the same fate.