Afghanistan barely made it to the World Cup. They barely made it out of the group stages at the World Cup Qualifiers. It took a spectacular turnaround (and a little help from Nepal) to see them sneak through on net run rate having registered just a single win. It took Asghar Afghan rising early from his hospital bed minus his appendix and against doctor’s advice to lead them unbeaten through the Super Sixes to the title.
Nonetheless, by the time the World Cup rolled around, there was a bit of buzz about the newest full member at the tournament. They had revenged themselves on Scotland at the Grange, without even their famous spin trio, then they saw off Pakistan in a warm-up match, and looked good doing it. Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan took five for 73 between them as Pakistan were bowled out for 262. Afghanistan overhauled that with two balls and two wickets to spare, hardly convincing, but most all the batsmen chipped in. A marker laid down. Afghanistan, it seemed, had arrived.
This was supposed to be the tournament where Afghanistan came of age. Not serious contenders perhaps, but serious competitors. A semi-final spot was never a realistic prospect, but Afghanistan were not here to make up the numbers, a new force rather than a novelty act. In the absence of fellow freshmen full members Ireland or any of their erstwhile associate peers, Afghanistan were the closest thing to a 'minnow' at the tournament, but they had beaten the West Indies twice to get there, and were taking three spinners of international reputation. This was not the fairytale of 2015, this was a full member amongst full members – also-rans, perhaps, but part of the pack.
Until the tournament began.
Then they were suddenly back to the team that didn't fit along with its competitors. Nine games. Nine defeats. They didn’t pass 250 again until their final dead rubber against the West Indies, the last of four such inanities as the interminable group stage did not afford them even the mercy of an early exit.
The signs had been there, for those that cared to look. Most prominently of course the ouster of Afghan as captain, over the protestations of Nabi and Rashid, which in retrospect belied a serious breach between the chief selector Dawlat Ahmadzai and both Afghan himself and coach Phil Simmons. The off-field turmoil continued throughout, first Mohammad Shahzad sent home in dubious circumstances, then Aftab Alam under a still darker cloud of controversy. By the time Afghanistan’s tournament was over the usually laid-back Simmons was publicly rowing with Ahmadzai, the former already on his way out and the latter demoted to junior selector and subject to an internal investigation along with acting CEO Asadullah Khan.
A dejected Gulbadin Naib meanwhile was predictably apologising to Afghan fans for an abject collective performance for which he deserves barely any of the blame. On the field, his side had looked out of their depth. Rashid, their figurehead and star, had his worst ever tournament, in no small part due to the merciless Eoin Morgan providing him the wrong sort of century, but six wickets at an average of almost 70 tells a story of a bowler unsettled, missing his lengths, missing his lines, missing Asian conditions, but above all missing his air of menace.
The seam attack looked rickety from the offset, a wreck by the end. Dalwat Zardan and especially Hamid Hassan struggled with fitness, Aftab, if reports are to be believed, with basic decency off the field. Naib did his best to make up the deficit, then did his worst. As ever, confident and competitive to a fault, the new skipper took too much responsibility on his broad shoulders, costing them their best shot at a face-saving win against Pakistan.
Though little was expected of the batting, Afghanistan’s top order failed to live up to even the the most modest of expectations. None of the first choice top six managed an average above thirty, only back-up Samiullah Shinwari’s return of 74 runs from three innings with two not-outs breaking the monotony of mid-to-high 20s averages. Late arrival Ikram Alikhil bagged the best score of the tour, a composed 86 against the West Indies when he was belatedly promoted up the order, but the 18 year-old’s efforts only served to underscore the unduly conservative selection decisions that caused such rancour behind the scenes.
And therein, at least, there is some cause for optimism. This tournament has not seen the best of Afghan cricket. There was a wealth of talent left at home, young batsmen, especially, that have had the benefit of growing with the game in their country, of formal coaching and four-day domestic cricket. It has not even seen the best of the side they sent, though when conditions did suit, there were glimpses.
India, the best team at the tournament if the points table is any measure, on average made more than 320 in the other five games they batted first. Afghanistan held them to 224-8, and they did it following the template, in classic Afghan style. It was Jasprit Bumrah that broke the formula by removing Rahmat Shah and Hasratullah Shahidi in the space of three balls, undermining the foundation of what looked a likely Afghan win, before Mohammed Shami delivered the Coup de grâce in the final over, but for a good 80-odd overs Afghanistan were on top, they looked like they belonged.
They will get there. There’s little doubt. For all the conflict and controversy off the field Afghanistan are no Zimbabwe, they have too many players and too much money for that. Nor are they Nepal, forever at the whim of results on the field, they have the sinecure of full member status to thank there. They had a bad tournament. A terrible one in fact. But they can afford one now. The fixtures will keep coming, a first home Test against West Indies has already been lined up for November, with trips to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh also pencilled in. They have their place assured in the main phase of the coming T20 World Cup in Australia, their place in the CWC Super League next year.
They will lose a few along the way, one suspects. This World Cup will likely have been a disappointing last hurrah for Shinwari, for Hassan, for Noor Ali Zadran, and perhaps for Naib, Afghan or even Nabi. But there are thousands now aspiring to take their place, among them a few that probably already should have. Nostalgic as this Afghan selection was, and nostalgic as was their amateurish showing on and off the field, this was surely too a last hurrah for Afghanistan as the plucky underdogs, the and the flamboyant failures.