After a four-year stint leading Afghanistan in all three formats, Asghar Afghan (formerly Asghar Stanizkai) was unceremoniously sacked as skipper on Friday, just two months ahead of the World Cup. Three new captains were named in his stead, with Gulbadin Naib, Rashid Khan and Rahmat Shah taking over in the ODI, T20 and Test formats respectively. Despite assurances that he would retain a place in the side, his 15-year career in Afghan colours may also have come to an end. Though named in the touring party, Afghan was conspicuously absent as the team departed for a training tour to South Africa.
The move has not gone down well. Among the strong criticism levelled at the Afghan selectors, a tweet describing the change as “irresponsible and biased” stood out, primarily because its author was none other than Rashid Khan — Afghanistan’s most recognisable star and Afghan’s putative replacement as T20 captain
With all the respect to the Selection Committee, I strongly disagree with the decision as it is irresponsible & bias. As we have @cricketworldcup in front of us, Captain #MAsgharAfghan should remain as our team Captain. His captaincy is highly instrumental for team success .(1/2)
— Rashid Khan (@rashidkhan_19) April 5, 2019
Mohammad Nabi echoed Khan’s sentiments, stating “I don’t think it’s the right time to change the captain before the WC. The team has gelled really well under Asghar & personally feel he is the right man to lead us.” And, like Khan, Nabi took the remarkable step of tagging Ashraf Ghani and Hamdullah Mohib into his statement.
Being a senior member of the side & having seen the rise of Afghanistan cricket @ashrafghani I don’t think it’s the right time to change the captain before the WC @afgexecutive The team has gelled really well under #Asghar & personally feel he is the right man to lead us @hmohib — Mohammad Nabi (@MohammadNabi007) April 5, 2019
It’s rare that a captain’s departure goes without public criticism, but Afghan is surely the first international captain whose sacking was publicly opposed by both his successor and predecessor. Certainly it is the first time that senior players have sought to bring their objections to the attention of their country’s president and national security advisor. Accusations of bias and nepotism are hardly new to Afghan cricket, nor is Khan the first active player to publicly level such allegations. Noor Ali Zadran notably took to YouTube ahead of the Afghanistan Premier League in 2018 with similar complaints, and indeed Afghan himself has been the subject of persistent suggestions on social media and in the press, that either he was the beneficiary of favouritism or in part responsible for overly conservative selection policies, or both.
Yet, whilst in the past Afghan’s under-performance with the bat (especially in ODI cricket, where he averages a modest 23.7 at strike rate of just 64.5) have often seen him labelled a dead-weight specialist captain, his habit of pulling off match-saving knocks in crisis situations had always been enough to ensure his place. More puzzlingly, his firing comes at a time when he has been in rare form, and the case for his inclusion both as a batsman and captain has never been stronger.
Afghan was Afghanistan’s stand-out performer with the bat in their most recent series against Ireland, and he played an indispensable role in their qualification campaign for the World Cup itself. While Afghan was sidelined with appendicitis during the early stages of the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe last year, Afghanistan slumped to three consecutive defeats under stand-in Khan, whose own form with the ball also seemed to suffer from the pressures of captaincy.
That Afghanistan made it out of the group stages at all was a minor miracle, relying on Nepal to best Hong Kong to allow Afghanistan to sneak through on Net Run-Rate, and their eventual triumph at the tournament owed much to the stabilising effect of Afghan’s return to the field and the captaincy — against doctor’s orders. Given Khan’s experiences at the tournament, it is little wonder he feels Afghan’s firing is a mistake, and of the three new skippers, he alone has experience of captaining the national side. Naib’s captaincy experience is limited to domestic List A cricket, whilst new Test captain Rahmat Shah’s first match as skipper will also be his first-class captaincy debut.
To ditch Afghan so close to the World Cup when his form is as good as ever and he clearly retains the support of dressing room seems baffling, yet it’s likely that the timing itself is a clue. With selection discussions for the World Cup presumably coming to a head, it seems as though Afghan, known to play a vocal role in selection, may have overplayed his hand. Such at least was the reported position of chief selector Dawlat Ahmadzai, who reportedly told press that the panel had deferred to Afghan on selections for the Ireland series, but were disappointed with the results.
"We prepared squad on @MAsgharAfghan demands for @Irelandcricket series but his decisions & planning to prepare his final team for @cricketworldcup were unacceptable & wrongs so we forced to sack him as a captain"Says chief selector #DawlatAhmadzai in a press conference. pic.twitter.com/R6AXvfMtgU
— M.ibrahim Momand (@kayhanmomand) April 5, 2019
Despite the remarkable tendency of those involved (Afghan himself excepted) to publicly air their opinions, it is still difficult to be certain what exactly has precipitated Afghan’s defenestration. But even those who feel that his removal is long overdue will concede that he appears to have been axed for all the wrong reasons. With the backing of the dressing room and looking better with the bat than he has in years, Afghan looks to have fallen prey to politics. It may be that in that respect he has brought his sacking on himself, and there will be plenty of fans quick to point out that there are better batsmen in domestic cricket that are overdue a chance.
But whether you think Afghan’s ouster is overdue or premature, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that it is neither timely, nor altogether seemly.