With Team India winning eight matches on the trot, fans have vociferously supported the Men in Blue at the One Day International (ODI) World Cup. However, there is one more team (whose jersey is also blue) that has brought joy to cricket lovers not just in India but all across the cricketing world. Afghanistan cricket team has been an underdog that found support from many corners but, unlike several others, they have punched well beyond their weight and exceeded expectations in this World Cup.
As they finish their campaign, having just fallen short of a semi-final spot, the Afghan side leaves a legacy that will stay entrenched in people’s hearts and minds for years to come. Perhaps not consciously, but they may have stirred an entire upcoming generation of Afghanistan to dream bigger and move beyond the immediate barriers that they face in their daily existence.
When the World Cup started, few expected the Afghanistan team to compete well – let alone beat the top-ranked teams in the tournament. But not only did they beat Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and defending champs England, they almost upset the five-time world champion side Australia in their quest for a place in the knockouts. If it weren’t for a freak, once-in-a-lifetime knock by Glenn Maxwell, Afghan fans supporting their team in India may just have been looking to extend their stay for a couple of weeks more! Their star all-rounder, Rashid Khan, wrote on Twitter after their hard-fought defeat in the final league game against South Africa that they had given their best, and their performances were a testimony to their fearless attitude on the field.
The extraordinary grit in the Afghan players and the fighting spirit of the team reflect the tough circumstances back in their homes.
Their wicketkeeper, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, was a cattle farmer until a few years back, and fast bowler Fazalhaq Farooqi was a laborer who built walls so that he could buy cricket equipment. Not just them, Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, the two senior pros of the side, were refugees in Pakistan and developed a love for the game there! Perhaps, it is this upbringing that has fueled a sense of purpose in the Afghan boys as they unitedly stood up as a strong unit in the World Cup.
A team that doesn’t have a home ground or even a secure environment to practice back home has brought joy amid a slew of worries among locals in the country. Afghanistan has easily been the second-best Asian team in the tournament after India. They lost close games against the Aussies and the Proteas, but their defeat against Bangladesh might hurt them the most. It was a match that most experts felt Afghanistan should have won, as the Bangladesh team has been far below their best in the tournament. But that loss also instilled fierce determination in the team and brought about a turnaround in form.
In fact, Afghanistan batsmen scored the second-highest total against Indian bowlers, who have been on a rampage in this World Cup. Only New Zealand posted a total of 273, which was just a run more than the Afghan total against the in-form Indian bowling unit. In their fixture against Australia, Ibrahim Zadran scored the first hundred for Afghanistan in World Cups. Their bowlers too stepped up and choked the opposition run-scoring on wickets that suited the Afghan spinners. They took full use of the slow, turning tracks, even against their Asian counterparts.
Besides the brilliant Rashid, Noor Ahmad and Azmatullah Omarzai also bowled disciplined spells to win crucial phases in many games. Even against Australia, after a brilliant opening spell by pacer Naveen-ul-Haq, the spinners had the opposition on the mat at 91 for 7. It was almost a certain Afghan victory if not for a freakish innings by Maxwell. But that day the entire world saw the potential that the Afghan side held and a glimpse of a bright future.
Most Afghan players are full-time cricketers, unlike Netherlands’ players who play cricket part-time and have other jobs apart from the sport. This experience of playing in various T20 leagues around the world and rubbing shoulders with some of the best players has brought a sense of belief in Afghan cricketers. Unfortunately for them, after this World Cup, many players may retire from international cricket. But they certainly have inspired a generation to take up the sport in a war-torn country that thrives on such small victories of their countrymen.
Afghanistan’s brilliant run at the World Cup has also ensured that they qualify for the 2025 Champions Trophy directly, ahead of teams like England and Sri Lanka. It is also a massive improvement from their report card at the last World Cup where they lost all their matches. There has been a huge penchant for improvement in Afghanistan cricket, which is visible in the fact that they hired the services of former English player, Jonathan Trott, and ex-Indian star, Ajay Jadeja as coaches. Afghanistan Captain, Hashmatullah Shahidi has credited them for their invaluable advice and analysis which ignited enormous improvement in their game.
More importantly, however, they now need help from cricket boards all around the world to play more bilateral series. Afghanistan plays a brand of cricket loved by the spectators, so getting broadcasting deals will not be an obstacle for the home boards inviting them. If they get more games and financial backing, in the not-so-distant future, we might see a new World Champion being crowned, one that may not even have any tournaments in their violence-torn homeland! Well done, Afghanistan – your excellence in exile is an inspiration for all sports lovers!