It’s common practice in sport to cheer for the underdog, the serial under-achiever and the team that’s likely to produce a fairytale result which will warm the hearts of fans all over the globe. From a cricketing perspective, the last fairytale achievement was arguably when Sri Lanka stormed to their famous World Cup victory in 1996, having only been a fully fledged cricketing nation for 15 years. It now seems that another fairytale is on the cards, with the rapid rise of the Afghani cricket team over the last 24 months, who recently added the ICC Intercontinental Cup title to their ever-expanding trophy cabinet.
The cricketing tale of Afghanistan isn’t very different to that of the country’s history of invasion, oppression, struggle, endeavour, triumph and hope. Cricket was first introduced to the people of Afghanistan by the British forces, where the only Afghans to play the game were those in refugee camps in Pakistan. This new generation of Afghans, in particular those who were born in the refugee camps, had to acquire the local customs of Pakistan, including the craze for cricket. Young players like Raees Ahmadzai, Karim Sadiq, Taj Malik and Hamid Hassan played in bare feet, though blazing heat, with handcrafted bats, and wickets and balls made out of almost anything. Even for these early cricketers, this was not just a sport they loved to play, but it was also a means of acceptance.
It quickly became apparent that Afghan players had determination and a natural talent for the sport, however a ban by Taliban in their home country meant that they continued playing for local teams in Pakistan. Despite this set-back, they still hoped that someday they will be able to represent their own country, holding their own flag, singing their own national anthem and most importantly, making their war ravaged nation proud.
Decades passed however they continued playing, waiting and hoping, despite pressure from their families to give up the sport and start looking for employment. However, hope came in 2001 through the form of yet another invader, the Americans, who displaced the Taliban regime and replace it with one of their liking. As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade… And that is exactly what the Afghani cricketers did. They capitalized on this opportunity and brought joy to their distressed nation, through triumph after triumph.
The first major success came in May of 2008 when they stormed to the ICC World Cricket League Division Five title in Jersey, a competition which included more fancied nations such the United State of America, Japan and Vanuatu. Afghanistan, competing in Group B, narrowly scraped through the first round with 3 wins, 1 draw and 1 loss, finishing on 7 points with a superior Net Run-Rate to that of Singapore who were also on 7 points. In the Semi-Final, the Afghans struggled batting first, posting a total of just 142, however fantastic efforts with the ball and in the field helped see them restrict Nepal to just 105, ensuring progression through to the final on the following day. Facing the daunting prospect of playing the host nation, they managed to dismiss them for just 80 runs, largely due to the supreme bowling efforts of Hamid Hassan who took 4/27. In reply, despite a shaky start which saw the team crash to 7/42, the Afghans crawled over the line finishing the match at 8/81 with all-rounder Hasti Gul making a match-winning 29 not out.
This triumph saw the team progress through to the ICC World Cricket League Division Four Championships, held just five months later in October of 2008. The tournament, held in Tanzania, was contested by six nations including the highly fancied Italian team, led by former Australia A player Joe Scuderi and the Hong Kong team, famous for its success in the annual ICC Hong Kong Sixes Tournament. The tournament was played in a different format from that of the Division Five Championships, with each country playing each other once in the preliminary rounds, before the top two faced-off in the final. Having cruised through the preliminary rounds without a loss, the Afghans were full of confidence heading into the final against Hong Kong, and easily accounted for them, winning by 57 runs after making 179 themselves. The star of the match was Mohammad Nabi who took 4/9 off 9 overs.
After two successive victories, the cricketing world was starting to take notice of the Afghans and when the ICC World Cricket League Division Three Championships arrived in January 2009, the Afghans were favoured to progress even further. The tournament was once again played in round-robin format and as they did in Division Four, Afghanistan topped the table with 4 wins and 1 loss. This proved to be a valuable position when the rain began to fall in the following days and the final was abandoned with Afghanistan being declared the winners.
The next assignment for the Afghans was the ICC Twenty20 Cup Qualifying Tournament held in the United Arab Emirates, in February of 2010. Here, they were competing against the much stronger Division One nations, such as Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, Canada and the Netherlands, and also the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America.
Being drawn in Group A, the Afghan’s started the tournament with an unexpected win against a strong Irish side, making 8/139 and then restricting Ireland to just 126, with Karim Sadiq the star taking 3/17. Their second match was against Scotland where they once again batted first, after being sent in. The managed a competitive total of 7/131 and once again defended it, restricting the Scots to 9/117. This time the star for the Afghans was Hamid Hassan who took 3/32. Their third and final group match was against the weaker American team, and after posting 4/135 batting first, they easily defended the total by restricting the USA to 7/106. Hamid Hassan once again starred, taking 3/14 off his four overs.
The next round of the tournament saw the top two teams from both groups play each other, with the top two progressing through to the final. The round started off poorly for the Afghans, losing to the Dutch who replied to Afghanistan’s 9/128 with 6/132. Despite the set-back, they came out firing in the second match, easily accounting for the UAE after restricting them to just 9/100 off 20 overs. Mohammad Nabi was the best of the bowlers picking up 3/17. Led by an unbeaten 38 from Noor Ali, the Afghans easily passed the target, having 4 wickets left in the shed. This was enough to ensure their qualification through to the final, where they once again met the tournament favourites, Ireland. Batting first, Ireland made an impressive 8/142 however it wasn’t enough as a determined Afghan outfit, assisted by a brilliant unbeaten 65 from Mohammad Shahzad, easily passed the total with 15 balls to spare.
After success in Division Three and the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, the Afghani team progressed through to the ICC World Cricket League Division One Championships in July of 2010. This tournament, held in the Netherlands, was the most important yet as crucial funding was at stake for the top four finishers. Furthermore, the top two teams would also qualify for the ICC World Cup, arguably cricket’s biggest event. Heading into the tournament, Afghanistan were considered the rank-outsiders despite their success in the shorter version of the game, once again competing against the World’s best non-Test Match playing nations such as Ireland, Canada, Kenya, Scotland and the Netherlands.
Despite this, Afghanistan showed maturity beyond their years and managed to win their first match against Canada, chasing down a competitive 257 with just 8 balls to spare. The star for the Afghans was captain Nowroz Mangal who smashed 70 runs off just 58 deliveries. This was the confident start they needed heading into their clash with tournament favourites, Ireland. Bowling first, the Afghans managed to restrict the Irish to just 9/237 off their 50 overs, with Hamid Hassan once again staring with 3 wickets. When it was the Afghans turn to bat, despite a solid start, things fell away and they were never in the hunt, eventually limping to 198 all out. With just three games remaining, they needed to win at least two to finish in the top four.
The third match of the tournament saw the Afghans take on Kenya, lead by the World’s best non-Test Match cricketer, all-rounder Steve Tikolo. Batting first, the Kenyan’s could only manage to score 7/233 off their 50 overs, outdone by that man again, Hamid Hassan, who took 3/32. In reply, the Afghans struggled early and found themselves 3/51 in the eleventh over. However, a gutsy 82 from Samiullah Shenwari kept them in the match and with six runs needed from the final over with just two wickets in hand, the match was anyones for the taking. Five runs off the first four deliveries left the scores tied, however a wicket off the penultimate ball left the game open. Shapoor Zadran, the number eleven batsman, however kept his nerve, sweeping the final ball away for a match-winning single.
The fourth match was against the Dutch, who batted first and made just 8/202, despite 101 from South Australian Tom Cooper who holds a Dutch passport. The Afghans were never troubled with the bat, cruising home on the back of an unbeaten 67 from Nowroz Mangal, losing just four wickets. With three wins from four matches, second spot was up for grabs in the final match against Scotland, however after being rolled for just 141, their chances of a top-two finish were dashed. Finishing third in the group stages and defeating the Netherlands again in the third-place playoff ensured the rewarding of much-needed funds from the ICC and also the added bonus of being given full ODI status until 2013. Overall, the tournament was a resounding success.
The next step in the incredible journey for the Afghans was their biggest tournament yet, the ICC World Twenty20 Championships in the West Indies, held in April and May of 2010. Afghanistan were drawn in Group C, alongside Asian counterparts India and the mighty South Africa. During their first match against India, opening batsman Noor Ali hit 50 runs, helping Afghanistan to a score of 115 in their 20 overs. Despite this they lost the match by 8 wickets. In their second match against South Africa, the teams shortcomings against express pace were exposed by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, with the team slumping to 14/6 at one stage. However, a late rally from Mirwais Ashraf and Hamid Hassan helped Afghanistan post 80 all out, resulting in a loss by 59 runs. Despite the two convincing losses, the likelihood of them winning either match was remote and the tournament was simply an opportunity to perform on the big stage. The team received praise from many quarters after their matches and the international cricket community were full of support for the minnow nation.
The final chapter in the list of recent successes for the Afghanistan cricket team came earlier this week when they defeated Scotland in the 2009/10 ICC Intercontinental Cup Final, a tournament for the best cricketing nations outside Test Match level, played over four days and given First Class status. The tournament, which also included Zimbabwe, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, Kenya and the Netherlands saw all seven nations play each other once during the qualifying round, with the top two finishers progressing to the final in Dubai, UAE. Given Afghanistan’s lack of experience in the longer version of the game, many thought, and rightly so, that they would struggle against their stronger opponents, however the fighting Afghans had other things in mind.
Their first match of the tournament was against a strong Zimbabwean side which possessed a number of players who have previously played Test Match cricket. Despite this, the Afghans dominated the match, despite not being able to secure a crucial victory, with Zimbabwe producing scores of 350 and 9/446 (dec), whilst Afghanistan managed scores of 427 and 4/211 in the high-scoring draw. The best for Afghanistan was the inspirational Noor Ali who made scores of 130 and 100 not out.
The second match was a low-scoring thriller against the Dutch, which resulted in the Afghans escaping with a one wicket victory. Batting first, the Netherlands made 181 with Hamid Hassan picking up four wickets. The Afghans replied with just 107, giving the Dutch first innings points. Despite the set-back, the Afghan bowlers once again fired, dismissing the home side for 132, with four wickets going to Mirwais Ashraf. Chasing in excess of 200, the Afghani batsman, led by Noor Ali with 56, passed the target nine wickets down to secure a memorable victory.
Heading to Sri Lanka for their third match, the Afghans were up against pre-tournament favourites Ireland in a must win match. The Irish didn’t disappoint, reaching 405 in their first innings. However, a strong reply of 474, where five batsmen passed 50, and some fantastic bowling to then reduce Ireland to just 202, left the victory target at just 134. Led again by Noor Ali with 57, the total was never in doubt and they secured their second win by seven wickets. Other outstanding performers were Samiullah Shenwari with 4/75 in the first innings and Dawlat Ahmadzai (5/52) and Mohammad Nabi (4/33) in the second innings.
Game four saw the team travel back to the UAE, to take on the under-performing Canadian side. Despite their recent struggles, Canada came out firing and when they amassed a massive 566, the game seemed out of Afghanistan’s reach. This became even more challenging when they were dismissed for just 264 in their first innings. However, as they’ve shown so often over the last two years, they were prepared to fight, and fight they did. Canada declared their second innings closed at 4/191, leaving a record chase of just under 500 required for an unlikely victory. The gutsy Afghans, led by Mohammad Shahzad with an unbeaten 215 scored at almost five runs an over, and by the time the 107th over came around, they’d achieved the unachievable, amassing 4/494. With three victories in a row and confidence sky-high, there was no stopping the Afghani steam train!
A 229 run thrashing of Scotland in game five saw a number of individual highlights, including centuries once again to Samiullah Shenwari (102) and Mohammad Shahzad (105 not out), and an outstanding bowling performance from Hamid Hassan who collected match figures of 6/40 and 5/114. With just one round remaining, the Afghans had all but assured their spot in the final and were out to continue the form in their sixth match against Kenya at Nairobi. Batting first, the Afghan batsmen once again produced the goods, amassing 464 on the back of 168 from captain Nawroz Mangal. Hamid Hassan then tore the Kenyan batting order apart, taking 5/70 in Kenya’s meager total of just 160. Making a quick 207 in the second innings, the Afghan’s set Kenya a record chase of 512, and despite some good batting, it was too hard a task, eventually falling 167 runs short to hand Afghanistan their fifth straight victory heading into the final. Hamid Hassan was once again the star with 6/87 in the second innings.
Afghanistan finished on top of the table after the qualifying rounds with 97 points, with Scotland claiming second spot with 89 points. The final, played in Dubai, was set to be a cracker of a match and both teams didn’t disappoint. Winning the toss and electing to bat first, Scotland was shot-out for just 212 with that man again, Hamad Hassan taking 5/45. However, for the first time in months the Afghan batting order failed to produce the goods, being dismissed for just 171 and handing the control back over to the Scotsmen. As discussed previously, the Afghanis simply don’t back down though and harbour a positive mindset in which they believe they can win from any situation. This once again showed in the second innings when they skittled Scotland for just 82, with Mirwais Ashraf being the pick of the bowlers with 3/8. Having been set just 124 for victory and the championship, the stakes were high and the Afghani batsmen didn’t disappoint, easily cruising to 3/124 off just 26.4 overs to secure the victory and most importantly, the title. Mohammad Shahzad was once again the best of the batsmen with an unbeaten 56.
Throughout the series, Afghanistan players topped both of the statistical charts, with Mohammad Shahzad amassing an amazing 802 runs at an average of 80.20, whilst Hamid Hassan taking 43 wickets at an outstanding average of just 19.18.
Despite all of this success, the hardest part for Afghanistan now awaits, that being able to compete with the Test-playing nations. Bangladesh, who have now been playing at the highest level for a decade, have shown glimpses of brilliance and are slowly showing signs of consistent improvement. However despite this, they are still seen as the ‘easybeats’ at the highest level, highlighting just how great the next step up is.
One thing in favour for the Afghani team, as is the case with Bangladesh, is that the age of their playing group is extremely low, therefore providing hope of more improvement in years to come. Of the eleven players to defeat Scotland in the ICC Continental Cup Final, the youngest was Shabib Noori at 18, whilst the oldest was Karim Sadiq at just 26. In addition to this, eight of the eleven players are 23-years-old or below, including superstar batsman Mohammad Shahzad who is just 19. This highlights just how fresh this group is and the improvements and experience to come are simply endless.
With scarce resources and access to world-class coaching, the Afghani cricketers might not be the most sophisticated players as yet, with some even being uncertain about their exact date of birth. However what makes this squad special is their drive, ambition and devotion, not only for the sport itself, but also in depicting a respectable image of their country. For Afghans, cricket is not just a game, but also a way of letting the regional players like England, India and Pakistan know that someday soon, Afghanistan will have the ability to beat them in their own game.