A country which hardly had a cricket pitch two decades back is now going into the World Cup as the number ten team in the world.
There are very few moments that have emerged out of Afghanistan in the past four decades that can be described as a feel-good story, one capable of defying negative connotations about a country that has been besieged and bedevilled by foreign ideologies, invasions, and occupations.
From brutal Communist purges of Afghan civil society in the 1970s to the Soviet invasion and occupation of the 1980s; from the reign of warlords and the Taliban in the 1990s to a US invasion and occupation that’s now in its 18th year, coverage of Afghanistan has produced stories that almost entirely speak to destruction, doom, and gloom.
That is until now, with the Afghan national cricket team emerging as a bonafide competitor on cricket’s biggest stage – the International Cricket Council (ICC) World Cup – which gets underway in the United Kingdom on Thursday.
Like international football and rugby union, cricket’s world cup is held once every four years, with Australia the reigning (One-Day International or ODI) champions, having won the tournament it hosted in 2015. That was the same year Afghanistan made its World Cup debut, losing to Bangladesh in its very first game, but notching its first win at cricket’s highest level by defeating Scotland a week later by the slimmest of margins – one wicket.
To put this achievement into some perspective, consider the fact there wasn’t a single team or even a solitary cricket pitch in Afghanistan a mere twenty years ago as a result of the Taliban banning all sports in the country for a near decade.
Even more remarkable is the fact Afghanistan has qualified for the 2019 ICC World Cup as the 10th best ODI team in the game, and on Friday, the team stunned the entire cricketing world, which totals nearly half the planet, by defeating seventh-ranked Pakistan, winners of the 1992 World Cup, in a pre-tournament warm-up game.
The win was no fluke. To even get this far in qualifying for cricket’s World Cup is a Mount Everest scale feat in itself, given there are nearly a hundred teams currently ranked by the ICC in the 50-over format of the game.
To place Afghanistan’s feat into a clearer perspective, I will briefly share with you details of my nothing to brag about international cricketing “career,” which might constitute the most generous usage of the word career in recent memory. I represented then-87th ranked Indonesia in a 6-team ICC tournament for lowly ranked teams in East Asia Pacific (EAP), constituting the very lowest rung in international cricket – then comprising the national teams of Japan, Samoa, Cook Islands, New Caledonia, Tonga and Vanuatu. A ranking Afghanistan found itself only a peg or two above a decade ago.
From this bottom rung, the top two teams advance to Division 5. Sadly my team – Indonesia – failed to win a game, with Japan and Vanuatu progressing, but with both failing to progress at the next stage, leaving dozens of other countries fighting it out to advance through the next four divisions to make it all the way to the 10-team World Cup.
Until a team reaches the top two divisions, players remain unpaid, existing on cheap food and even cheaper accommodations in the almost impossible hope of playing against and amongst the multi-million dollar salary earners of international cricket.
This is the proverbial mountain Afghanistan has climbed in a mere decade, while also producing the world’s third highest ranked bowler Rashid Khan, who is now the country’s number one international celebrity, and now earning more than $500,000 in India’s annual T-20 tournament series, which spans two months each April and May.
“Sport is the only thing that brings peace to the country,” Khan told the UK’s Telegraph last week, adding that he was “inspired” into playing cricket at a high level by watching Afghanistan perform in a T20 tournament in 2010.
“When I saw the international side playing in the international level, then the motivation and everything started. I just tried my best to represent my country.”
Charlie Burke, who was not only an assistant coach for the Indonesian national team I played with in 2007, but also the former head coach of the Hong Kong national side that defeated Afghanistan during the 2015 T-20 World Cup qualifiers, told me, “Afghanistan aren’t just a team full of talented cricketers, they play with as much pride, if not, more than any other nation.”
“They take the game on and know how to win. You look at the lineup, and they bat deep, have 35/40 overs of absolute quality and can compete with anyone,” he told me.
When I pressed Burke for a prediction, he offered, “They will upset a few teams, and I honestly believe they will only be a couple of wins off qualifying for the semi-finals. They have a nation behind them, no fear and match winners.”
Afghanistan will play its opening game of the tournament in Bristol on June 6th against Australia, a team that is playing well below the level it was at when it crushed New Zealand in the World Cup final four years ago.
For Afghanistan to advance to the semifinals it’ll need to win at least five, but most likely six or even seven of its nine round-robin games, with its best chances of success being against Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies – but its win against Pakistan in Friday’s friendly proves it’s a team capable of beating any opponent on any given day.
That Afghanistan has made it this far already places it amongst the most exceptional sporting underdog stories. Were it to win a game or two, and defy bookmaker odds that have them finishing winless in last place, then Afghanistan’s national cricket team will be responsible for having produced something the country has been prevented from accomplishing in nearly forty years – global tears of joy.
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