In what has to be the most sensational rise by a cricket team, Afghanistan’s national side has managed to qualify for the 2015 World Cup just fourteen years after becoming an ICC member and seven years after starting in the World Cricket League Division Five.
Remarkably, most of these cricketers learnt the game in refugee camps in Pakistan after having escaped from the endless war and turmoil that has continually dogged their nation. They do have to thank Pakistan as well for their initial foray into cricket, as it was them who first invited the Afghans to play in the second tier of its domestic cricket in 2001. Even as the country was on tenterhooks with an inevitable US-led invasion looming, the game of cricket was quietly making its presence felt.
The hard-working and highly talented Afghans took to the game and mastered it quickly, winning their first game in Pakistan in 2003 and later scoring six victories over various county second elevens on a visit to England in 2006. Their first tournament success soon followed, when they shared the 2007 ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman. A year later, they embarked upon the highly challenging task of entering into the 2011 World Cup qualifiers, a tough ask indeed given that they started off in the WCL Division 5.
But armed with amazing confidence and determination symbolic with people from mountainous terrains, the Afghans marched on as the world began to take notice. Needing to win the various divisional tournaments that came their way, they did just that. Division 5 was won in Jersey in 2008, followed by the Division 4 title in Tanzania later the same year. In early 2009, their goal of making it to the qualifiers in South Africa was achieved after winning the division 3 title in Argentina. This was a phenomenal achievement in itself, given that there were hardly any proper pitches to play on, let alone grounds, back in the war-torn country.
In the 2009 qualifiers, Afghanistan defied the odds by almost qualifying for the 2011 event. However they secured ODI status for the first time, and beat Scotland by 89 runs in their first ever international. A team which was playing Bahrain and Singapore just a couple of years ago was now easily defeating established Associate teams. But their biggest success still lay ahead – in late 2010, they defeated Scotland by 7 wickets in the final of the 2009-10 Intercontinental Cup in their first appearance in the first-class tournament. Given that they were the only Affiliate team in the fray, it was scarcely believable. But it had happened, and it seemed as if nothing could stop the progress of this spirited bunch. In May 2010, the Afghans also played their first ICC international tournament – the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean.
The cricket world could not ignore the Afghans any longer, and it was not far-fetched to suggest that they had become the 12th-best team in the world, with only Ireland bettering them among non full-members. And mind you, Afghanistan were not even an Associate team, but an Affiliate. This aberration was thankfully corrected in June 2013. Followers from across the globe now were expecting Afghanistan to regularly beat fellow Associates, and they yet again proved their mettle in the period between 2011 and 2013, first qualifying for the 2011-13 Intercontinental final (as defending champions, they will take on Ireland in the summit clash in December) and then realising their cherished dream of securing a World Cup berth for the first time.
For the 2015 event, Afghanistan will be placed in Group A alongside co-hosts Australia and New Zealand, England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and another qualifier. With only the top two from the eight teams in the 2011-13 World Cricket League getting automatic qualification, Afghanistan had their task cut out, now that there were realistic expectations from them. After a stuttering start – they won three of their first eight games – they won their next six on the trot, edging out the Netherlands and the UAE after thrashing Kenya twice last week in Sharjah to seal the second automatic spot, the first expectedly going to tournament winners Ireland. From the makeshift wickets of refugee camps to the big stage of a World Cup Down Under. Indeed, a most delightful journey by a team of brave-hearts.
Their star all-rounder captain Mohammed Nabi, gritty former captain Nowroz Mangal, spunky wicketkeeper Mohammed Shehzad, high-class fast-bowlers Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran, among others, have become the heroes for a nation desperately needing someone to look up to. With their football team also doing well of late, it seems sport is the way forward for a brighter future in Afghanistan.
It is upto the ICC now to show some rare foresight and allocate more fixtures to Afghanistan – getting them to play the Asia Cup next year would be wonderful idea. As of today, politics, corruption and ego issues on the part of the world’s most powerful cricket board have severely dented the game of cricket. Thus, in such worrying times, the story of Afghan cricket is one that harbours hope.