Afghanistan: making us think about cricket

University Oval, Dunedin. Possibly one of the most beautiful grounds in the world. It is not just a stadium; it is a cricket ground. With a capacity of 6,000 people, it is the smallest ground to host World Cup matches this year. Surrounded by a landscape of trees and grassy banks dotted around the outskirts, it is a stadium from another time. However, something rare was happening in this far-flung corner of the world, Scotland was celebrating (not a thing they were able to do that often). Having never won a World Cup match from ten attempts, they could almost taste their first win.  After a stuttering 50 overs with the bat, having been 8/142 before being bowled out for 210, and making a slow start with the ball, they had placed Afghanistan in the precarious position of 7/97. As the wickets tumbled, the fielders became more and more excited. As Dawlat Zadran joined Samiullah Shenwari, not out on 24, (but who had been given a life on 20 when dropped by MajidHaq), they needed 114 runs from 24.3 overs. This situation has mirrored Afghani cricket over the years. They have had to overcome adversity, war, poverty and the Taliban just to be able to play the game.

Afghanistan’s rise has been nothing short of extraordinary. Their national team, known as the “Blue Tigers”, has completed the rise from minnows, to not only playing but also competing against the world’s top teams. Formed in 2001, their team started their journey in the ICC Fifth Division against countries such as Germany, Japan and Botswana. Winning that competition, they navigated through Division 4 and Division 3 before qualifying for their first major tournament, which was the “2010 ICC T20 World Cup.” In just nine years, their achievements were remarkable enough, but they kept going. Although comprehensively beaten by both India and South Africa they showed that they were able to compete with the best in the world. Since then, they have gained ODI status and have beaten Test-playing nations such as Zimbabwe and being competitive against many others.

Shenwari and Dawlat kept frustrating Scotland’s bowling attack making only ten runs from the next six overs. Samiullah Shenwari started to gain some rhythm and consolidated for Afghanistan, by bringing up his 50 off 113 balls. Scotland was now tiring as they couldn’t get past the wall that was Shenwari’s defence, the wall that was his pride. Dawlat, having played a sensible innings of defending and keeping Shenwari on strike, had a rush of blood and tried to hit the ball into Tasmania, but as he hit it, it was obvious that it would not go across the Tasman. Mommsen took the catch and Shenwari understandably was not happy with his partner. He slammed his bat into the turf, disgusted. The score read 8/132 as Hamid Hassan the talismanic fast bowler came in with 79 still needed.

When interviewed by The Telegraph about Afghani cricket, coach Andy Moles said something that really summed up their team. Talking about his players, he said, “not many people beat the Afghan people. You get the feeling when you are amongst them that they don’t lie down, so I am trying to harness that spirit when it comes to the cricket.”

Afghanistan might not be the most talented team, have the best facilities or the money of other teams and associations around the world, but when you see Hamid Hassan charging into bowl with his Afghani-coloured bandana, Mohammad Nabi slashing at a cover drive and their fans cheering their first wide in the World Cup, you could see how much they want to make their country proud and themselves proud. They want to have a shot at making history. Patrick Skene, who is a key figure in multicultural sport in Australia, and the founder of the Red Elephant organisation said of the Blue Tigers, “Afghanistan brings a story of resilience and passion and shows other nations that they can get to world standard very fast if they have the commitment.”

They were just doing that – and Scotland was becoming desperate. Shenwari turned up the heat and was slogging them all over the ground. It was game on.

Mijad Haq comes on to bowl (his spin clocked at the breath taking pace of 67 kph!) and promptly gets dispatched for three sixes in five balls. Shenwari however goes for one too many and holes out to deep mid-wicket. It is a crushing blow for Shenwari who on 96 deserves to reach his century. He goes to his knees with despair (and not much confidence in the number 11!) As Shapoor Zadran comes out, 19 runs are needed from 19 balls with only one wicket left.

Sitting in the stands (after being LBW for just one run) is the captain Mohammad Nabi. Although he hasn’t had a good day with the bat, Mohammad Nabi is Afghanistan’s best player. He sits eighth in the ODI All-Rounders rankings, ahead of Australia’s Shane Watson and Glenn Maxwell. He hails from a well-to-do family that moved to Peshawar in Pakistan to seek safety from the Soviet invasion. Since taking up cricket at the age of ten, he has been a key member of the Afghani side from their humble beginnings and continued his rise to become the Afghani captain in 2013. Nabi has a harrowing tale. In 2013 while Nabi was in Ireland, his father was kidnapped by “local goons,” as Nabi calls them, and held to ransom for the price of $2million dollars. When his father was found alive, Nabi smashed 81 of 45 balls against Namibia and then took 5 for 12. Namibia only managed 16 more runs than he made. Although he is 30 years of age, he doesn’t look like he will give up the game any time soon.

As Shapoor and Hassan chase victory, Shenwari is in the dugout with his helmet in his hands. His innings was unbelievable, his determination and pride never wavering but will it be enough? If they win the match, he will be a hero. Defying the odds, Shapoor and Hassan scramble runs through singles, wides and even a ricochet off the stumps. Remarkably, Shapoor pulls the seventh ball of the Berrington over down to fine leg for four to make the equation simple, 5 runs from 6 balls. The atmosphere is tense when Iain Wardlaw is given the hideous task of bowling the last over. Hamid squeezes a single out of the first ball before Zadran almost suicidally goes for a single, just making his ground. Wardlaw is feeling the pressure and it gets to him as Zadran applies some magic spray to his finger, his third delivery is a full toss on leg stump and Shapoor whips it away for four. They’re home.

Afghanistan players are ecstatic, Scotland are devastated. After just fifteen years, Afghanistan have gone from playing in the second tier of Pakistan’s domestic competition, to winning a World Cup match. In Afghanistan, they will be heroes, their story told for generations. In a country where the effects of war are all to plain to see, cricket is a distraction from what is going on around them. It is inspiring to watch this team play.

As Afghanistan celebrates winning their first World Cup match, they are proving the ICC wrong at every turn. The ICC is to be applauded for allowing associate members into this year’s tournament, but they are cutting out all associates out of the next two World Cups. This is absurd, as Ireland has beaten the West Indies, and with Afghanistan’s effort against Sri-Lanka and Scotland’s against New Zealand. It is just illogical that they will not allow future associate member nations to compete with the best in the world. How can they get any better when they cannot compete against these teams, the best teams in the world? Are they really trying to promote cricket, or keeping it to a select few nations?

And what of the future of Afghanistan cricket? Patrick Skene is circumspect. “I think it is very difficult for them to gain test status and very difficult to fit them in with the ICC future tours schedule,” he admits.  “The only way would be if India decided to make Afghanistan a development project and include them in their schedule.  A Division 1 and 2 test competition, with promotion and relegation, would be the solution. But this would be costly and a major undertaking.”

If Afghanistan is to be able to compete and play against these top teams, then the major cricket nations need to include them in their schedules to play ODI’s and Test’s. The World Cup is the first step, but more needs to be done.

But for now the nation watches as their side plays against Australian in Perth on Wednesday. They have the chance to play one of the best teams in the world on the world stage. Australia be warned, Afghanistan are coming to play! It will be interesting to see how many Afghanis are at the WACA cheering for hope.

Max Wiggins at work experience

 

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