Writing in his blog for Yorkshire CC, Saj explains how despite the seemingly insurmountable difficulties at home, the Afghanistan cricket side will pose a strong challenge to the top teams in the 2019 World Cup.
By Saj Sadiq (10th January, 2019)
For a country ravaged by civil war for many years and where violence can be a way of life, the love of cricket is one that has continued to unite the people of Afghanistan and bring great hope for a brighter future.
With their country in a state of turmoil, it would have been almost acceptable to consider that cricketers from Afghanistan would have been satisfied to simply compete at any suitable international level. The world of cricket would have looked at them with sympathy and accorded them polite acknowledgement and not much more would have come of their interest in cricket.
But those who considered Afghanistan just another small cricketing nation vying to find its feet at the international level did so at their peril. Although the British troops who took part in the Anglo-Afghan wars in the 19th century introduced the sport to the people of Afghanistan, it was another hundred years before cricket formally took hold in the country. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s resulted in displacement of many of its nationals to camps in Pakistan where the love for the great game was reinforced in Afghan minds.
As conditions improved in Afghanistan and some degree of stability ensued, progress towards the formal setup of the game was quick with the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now Afghanistan Cricket Board) being formed in 1995. The Afghans by dint of sheer hard work and determination quickly moved to the level of an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council in 2001 and were given membership of the Asian Cricket Council in 2003, and earned their ODI status in 2009. The ultimate reward and recognition of their fast-rising status as a team that could challenge the more established sides came in 2017 when Afghanistan became the 12th Test playing nation.
Whilst the road to their current standing in international cricket was a tough one with many disappointments in terms of results, the raw cricketing talent that Afghanistan possessed was never in question. Whether it was the tough and sometimes harsh economic conditions which powered their hunger to improve themselves and punch many times above their weight, or the simple drive to excel in the face of unreal odds, the emergence of Afghanistan as a cricket nation to beat has been one of the greatest success stories of the modern era.
Amongst the 10 teams that will take part in this year’s World Cup, the Afghans will be hoping to not just simply make up the numbers but to progress to the latter stages of the ICC’s premier ODI tournament. Whilst it would be great for the tournament organisers to have a so called ‘minnow’ side making its way through the tournament, the Afghans will have different ideas. They will be pursuing success with seriousness and given some of the players at their disposal, that may not be as unrealistic as many would think.
Leading the list of Afghanistan’s finest one-day players is a man who is possibly one of the most well-recognised names in international cricket. At just twenty years of age, the ebullient leg-break bowler Rashid Khan has been wowing crowds around the world since his ODI debut in October 2015 against Zimbabwe. His ability to take on the very best batsmen in international games or in various Twenty20 League tournaments around the world has made him the stand out performer for his country. With 118 wickets in 52 ODIs at a scarcely believable average of 14.47, and best figures of 7/18 against the West Indies in 2017, Rashid Khan will be the top name in the Afghanistan side and should provide some sleepless nights for opposition teams as they plan to tackle one of ODI cricket’s top bowling stars.
Close behind Rashid Khan and one of the senior most members of the very talented Afghanistan side, Mohammad Nabi at 34 years of age is expected to play the role of the senior statesman in the side’s 2019 World Cup campaign. A veteran of no less than 106 ODIs, Nabi’s all-round abilities will be what Afghanistan will need plenty of as they take on the very best of the nine other nations vying for the title of World Champions in England. The 2435 ODI runs that he has scored with a strike rate of over 88 is complemented by 114 wickets in the same format and quite apart from his calming influence, the statistics alone make him a player that Afghanistan have depended on a lot as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India found out to their discomfort during the Asia Cup in 2018.
The Afghan wicket-keeper Mohammad Shahzad may not conform to the stereotypical model of a modern-day sportsman but sides looking to take on Afghanistan will note that he is capable of some brilliant innings as he recently demonstrated with his brilliant 124 against India in the Asia Cup final in the UAE. But if there is proof needed of the hope and joy that cricket has brought to the Afghanistan nation, one does not have to look any further than the precocious talent of the 17-year-old spin bowler Mujeeb Ur Rahman who is currently impressing all in the Big Bash League where he has been a key performer for Brisbane Heat. He may be young but a quick glance at his statistics shows that at the tender age of 17, he has already played 23 ODI games and claimed 44 international scalps and is highly regarded by Head Coach Phil Simmons as one to watch for the future.
With a side overflowing with talent and a drive to succeed and showcase their prowess, the Afghanistan side will be taking on Pakistan and West Indies at Headingley during the ICC World Cup. If the very close encounters with Pakistan during the Asia Cup in 2018 is any indicator, those watching the games at Headingley are in for a treat and could well see some upsets if this exciting and dangerous Afghanistan side plays to its full potential.