No fluke… Afghanistan a real force in white-ball cricket
We were surprised in mid-October when Afghanistan’s 69-run victory over defending champions England at the 2023 (50-over) ICC Cricket World Cup in India was described by some as being among the biggest upsets ever.
Indeed, some even likened it to the defeat of a powerful West Indies team by the east African nation Kenya — made up mostly of amateurs — at the 1996 One-Day International World Cup. Back then the West Indies recovered to reach the semi-finals.
We felt the triumph over England was in a very different category since the Afghans have been punching with the ‘big boys’ for years.
Afghanistan qualified automatically for this World Cup. Such has been their success in recent years. This, even as Sri Lanka and The Netherlands had to battle at a qualification tournament in Zimbabwe, knocking out two-time champions West Indies in the process.
Today, Afghanistan pose danger for all others in white-ball cricket. Their lead spinners, Messrs Rashid Khan, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Mohammed Nabi, and Noor Ahmad are among the best in the world — plying their trade in global Twenty20 tournaments, not least the cash-rich Indian Premier League.
It was no surprise to us that after a shaky start, losing three of their first four games at this World Cup, the Afghans have now won three in a row, beating Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and The Netherlands.
Now in fifth place behind India, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, the Afghans are faced with huge hurdles in order to reach the semi-finals. To do so, they will need to get past powerful Australia and South Africa over the next few days.
That’s a long shot, but the Afghans — a quintessential warrior nation who even the British at the height of their imperialist pomp found impossible to defeat — have proven repeatedly that they should never be ruled out.
Intriguingly, although the British introduced cricket to Afghanistan in the 19th century, it has only taken hold since the 1990s to early 2000s, even as war and internal strife threatened total destruction.
The way the Afghans tell it, refugees on their eastern border region with Pakistan started following the game while watching live and on television, as well as listening to radio. Soon young people and children took to every open space, joining their Pakistani counterparts in playing cricket. It became an obsession carried back to their native communities when tensions eased.
Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, well in excess of one million of Afghanistan’s 36 million people were said to be playing cricket — the fastest-growing and most popular sport at the time.
The return to power of the Islamic extremist Taliban regime in 2021 has created great uncertainty. Crucially, it has meant that women and girls can no longer play sport and some female cricketers have fled the country.
There is talk in some quarters that Afghanistan should be excluded from international cricket because of gender discrimination.
Sport is not alone in that regard. In fact, Afghan girls are denied education beyond sixth grade.
We take note of news reports that Afghanistan’s success at this World Cup has triggered joy and celebration unheard of since the Taliban resurgence.
Like the rest of the world, we wait with bated breath to see what’s next for Afghan cricket.