If anything, the qualifiers only highlighted Afghanistan's inability to flourish under pressure, even against weaker sides.
All of us tend to love an inspiring story. When a group of beings stick together to wrestle aside the troubles that have been haunting them, it leaves one in awe of the valour being exhibited. The cricketing circuit has always been privy to such heart-warming tales of bravery and Afghanistan's recent rise in the sporting arena has made them motivational figures all around.
Anyone who is a keen follower of the game has time and again read of the journey that the cricket team in the war-stricken nation has traversed. With the Taliban at the height of their power, it was almost unheard of in Afghanistan to have a group of boys assemble for a cricket match, but with the turn of the millennium, and with the rise of the sport in Jalalabad, the government formed the Afghanistan Cricket Board and since then there has been no stopping the upsurge of the followers that cricket has garnered in the country.
Entering the World Cricket League Division 5 in 2008 started a journey many could not even imagine a few years ago. Two years later, the country was playing its first international tournament in the form of the World T20 and by 2012, equipped with a group of refugees, the cricket team had been conferred with the top Associate nation honours. Suddenly, the country that had remained engulfed in strife and war had a major reason to cheer about.
Spectators started attending the domestic games and the talent pool massively increased. Funds started emerging and suddenly almost all the provinces started fielding sides in domestic competitions. The sport was encouraged to be a part of the curriculum in schools and their participation in the 2015 World Cup, followed by an appearance in the World T20 a year later, where they became the only team to defeat eventual champions West Indies, struck a chord with many cricket lovers.
Here was a team belonging to a country that had till then only evoked images of bloodshed and fear, but through their constant efforts, the picture of Afghanistan was changing. Players like Asghar Staniksai, Mohammad Shahzad, Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan became household names.
It gave rise to waves of joy whenever the young spinner turned around a game in the many T20 competitions that he was a part of. Nabi and Rashid's selections in the Indian Premier League (IPL) only added to the fairy-tale and their wins over Zimbabwe further established their promise. With Afghanistan slated to open their Test journey with a game against India in Bangalore later this year, they were certainly a team to look out for in the future. It seemed that almost nothing could stop the young squad from entering the World Cup next year, after they put in yet another brilliant performance in the qualifiers that would decide the last two spots for the quadrennial showpiece event in England.
"I tried so hard and got so far/ But in the end, it doesn't even matter."
By the time Afghanistan had played three of their games in the qualifiers, no song better than Linkin Park's "In the End" could summarise the last few years of hard work that the cricket team had put in. Three losses in as many games had seriously jeopardised the chances of Afghanistan qualifying for the World Cup, leaving the cricket fraternity with several questions.
How did the strongest Associate team on paper fare so poorly in the tournament? How were they unable to go past a team like Hong Kong, who are far weaker than Afghanistan? More importantly, given that they would miss out on the 2019 World Cup and the World T20 still a good two years away, what is the future of cricket in the country? With the 2023 World Cup too consisting of just 10 teams, have Afghanistan run the risk of never breaking into the top rungs of cricket anytime soon?
If anything, the qualifiers only highlighted Afghanistan's inability to flourish under pressure, even against weaker sides. A major reason could be the lack of games that the side has played against top-quality sides since 2015.
While matches against Zimbabwe, Ireland, West Indies and UAE were frequently played, no game was played against the likes of India, South Africa, Pakistan or Australia. True, that does not explain the losses to Scotland and Hong Kong in the qualifiers but playing against teams like Ireland and UAE regularly does not compensate for the experience that would have been earned against tougher teams. All squads that lined up in the tournament in Zimbabwe were on equal footing, with very little differentiating them, and despite containing experienced players, the pressure of a high-intensity tournament caught them off-guard.
This only makes us ponder over the International Cricket Council's (ICC) ploy to have 10 teams in the next two editions of the World Cup. With a packed international calendar, teams like India will hardly play Afghanistan on a regular basis, except a small series or so, and not only does that risk the overall development of the game in the Associate country, it also threatens to undo ICC's plans of globalising the game of cricket.
The matter in Afghanistan seems to be more deep-rooted than it appears. While the game has caught on like a frenzy, the infrastructure is still inadequate for the 30 million citizens. With less than 15 cricket turfs in the country, most of them in Jalalabad, the Pashtuns have been dominating the sport in Afghanistan, disallowing many young enthusiasts to pick up the game. They have also been guilty of a lack of fitness and slow running between the wickets in crunch situations and even though the bowling attack is more promising, Rashid's prioritisation of playing in T20 leagues around the world leaves them handicapped.
Participation in the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games can go a long way in restoring the balance between Afghanistan and the other nations, but the lack of interest of the ICC and the major boards (read BCCI) have meant that Afghanistan are relegated to playing bilateral series, which can in no way attune a team to the pressure of a multi-team event. With prolonged periods away from the game, sponsors would back away from investing heavily in a team and the Afghan board would be running mostly from ICC funding.
Though the cricket structure and the domestic tournaments in Afghanistan have now expanded themselves, until the senior players realise their importance of the side's growth, not many can help them. True, aggression is a major part of the game but a team like Afghanistan, that does not boast of many match-winning players if Rashid or Shahzad are absent, need to evaluate what kind of aggression they should bring to the field. Shahzad's two-match suspension after an angry outburst against Zimbabwe hurt Afghanistan in the crucial game against Hong Kong and even Mujeeb ur Rahman throwing the ball at Brendan Taylor reeked of immaturity. Thus, even though the team has taken massive strides in scripting their fairy-tale, some tweaks, both by the ICC and the ACB can go a long way in ensuring that the process is a smooth one.
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