World T20: Return of the Kabuliwallah
The resilient Afghan team has won many hearts in the T-20 World Cup by its big-hearted victories against all odds
Sandeep Kumar Delhi
T20 World Cup has always been a cake walk for teams of the Asian subcontinent. Considering the last five tournaments, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have won it on three occasions. The final has been played three times between Asian teams. There have been two or more teams from the subcontinent in every knock out phase at the T20 world Cup.
In the 2016 World T20 being played in India, surprisingly, the performance of the Asians giants has not matched their reputation. India, despite being the home team and the tournament favourite, struggled to reach the knock out phase, basically propelled by a one-man show, whereas Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh did not even look threatening.
One ‘underdog team’ which looked to be an unconventional artist of sorts was Afghanistan. They started the tournament with tactical consistency against the qualifying teams and ended it on a historic note. In their last group match, the Afghans held on to their nerves to pull off a remarkable six-run win against the West Indies in Nagpur.
This, however, is not the first incident of minnows or the ‘associate’ teams, defeating a major test-playing full member team in a World Cup event. There has been a similar upset in every ICC tournament so far, but the achievement is often rated as a lucky cameo or a fluke. The qualifying teams lack consistency. They pull off a blinder by beating a high-ranked team in one match and loose the remaining matches by a huge margin.
Afghanistan qualified for the World T20 main event by keeping a hundred per cent record against the qualifying teams. They defeated Zimbabwe, Scotland and Hong Kong convincingly to make into the Super 10 stage with teams like West Indies, South Africa, Sri Lanka and England in their group. Against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens, Kolkata, the Afghans batted well, but they were not outstanding. They committed sloppy errors in the field and a spirited Tillakaratne Dilshan, with the help of some dew, took the game away from them.
Against South Africa at Wankhede Stadium, despite being demoralised by a huge total on the board, the Afghans didn’t lose hope and aggressively countered the highly rated Proteus fast bowlers. Mohammad Shahzad, opening batsman and wicket keeper, also nicknamed as Afghanistan’s ‘MSD’ for copying the ‘helicopter shot’ with perfection, ravaged the bowlers. He blasted 44 runs in 19 balls, comprising five sixes and three fours, against one of the best fast bowling line-ups in modern cricket.
In the face-off with England, the English batsmen were nailed by the Afghan spinners on a topsy-turvy wicket and were struggling at 85 for seven at one stage. However, Moeen Ali anchored the innings and took it to a respectable total.
The team danced, and echoes of ‘Champions! Champions’ could be heard all around. Chris Gayle joined the Afghan players in the celebration. A rare sight, perhaps, the most memorable moment of the tournament
Having threatened to pull off a surprise in every single outing against the Lankans, South Africans and the Englishmen, they did it in style against the Caribbean team. Amir Hamza, 24, left arm orthodox spinner, bowled a fantastic spell of four overs, conceding nine runs with a wicket, to seal the match against the West Indies who were unbeaten in the tournament till then.
The moment was historic, a dream come true for Afghanistan. Finally, their wait to register a victory against an old power house Test-playing nation in this tournament is over. The entire team danced, jumped and cheered, and the echoes of ‘Champions! Champions’ could be heard all around the Nagpur cricket stadium. Such was the level of enthusiasm that Chris Gayle walked from the opposition camp and joined the Afghan players in the celebration and clicked selfies with the dancing players. A rare sight in the cricket field, perhaps, the most memorable moment of the tournament.
Unlike their strong cricketing neighbours, Pakistan and India, war-ravaged Afghanistan started playing cricket very late and became an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001. Gradually, they raised their game by playing in every possible qualifying cricket league. Starting from Division Five in the World Cricket League in 2008, they made a major impact by qualifying in the World T20 tournament in 2010. Currently, Afghanistan is ranked ninth in the ICC T20 rankings, remarkably, above Test-playing nations, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
Inzamam-Ul-Haq, legendary Pakistan batsman and one of the best captains in the history of Pakistan cricket, has been the main force behind the overwhelming success of the Afghan team. Followed by the signing of a two year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) for the development of the game in 2013, Inzamam was appointed the head coach of the national team. Former Indian fast bowler Manoj Prabharkar joined as the bowling coach.
Under Inzamam, Afghanistan has become a settled unit. The core of the team comprises a mixed bag of experienced warhorses along with fresh, young and talented rookies. The most significant feature of the team has been their ability to spot new talent and grooming them. Unlike Oman, UAE, Hong Kong and other Asian ‘associate’ countries, which have key players who are of Indian or Pakistani origin, Afghanistan relies totally on local players.
During Asia Cup 2016, Afghanistan made Aakash Chopra, former Indian cricketer, eat his own words, when he mockingly questioned the nationality of their players in a controversial tweet in social media. Shahzad, Asghar Stanikzai, Najibullah Zadran were the key contributors with the bat whereas Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Hamza and Samiullah Shenwari were the major wicket-takers. These players are slowly but surely lifting their game around the cricketing globe. They have already been a hit in the domestic leagues of Bangladesh and Pakistan. With their current form, they might soon be knocking at the doors of bigger leagues such as the Indian Premiere League (IPL) and Big Bash. Shahzad for IPL was one of the trending demands during the current World Cup.
"All our previous matches have been close. They were not one-sided matches. It’s not like a team makes 200 against us and we are all out for 100 or 150. The team has been fighting, and the belief was always there. Afghanistan can do much better against big nations,” mentioned Inzamam, as he applauded the Afghan team for their achievement in the World Cup.
At a time when the ICC is actively considering reducing the number of teams in the World Cup stage and not including ‘associate’ teams, Afghanistan has shown a mirror to the big guns of world cricket. Victories in these tournaments provide a springboard to the newer teams to push the threshold of talent, success and hard work. Besides, without the upsets by the underdogs, the World Cup would lose much of its thrill and unpredictability.