“We have a lot of problems back in our country. There is a war. The one thing that brings happiness to our people is cricket,” said Hashmatullah Shahidi. The Afghan batsman has faced some of the most fearsome bowlers in world cricket over the past month, but he knows what it means to be truly terrified.
War is a heavy thing. Too heavy to encapsulate in a thousand words. The pictures that come from Kabul tell their own tale of human suffering. As the timeless Test between the Taliban and Western forces closes in on 20 years of sustained fire, it has become a way of life for those caught in the middle.
The situation in Afghanistan puts into sharp perspective the rallying calls made by countries at peace, imploring their players to be willing to die on the field of play. This is just a game. Cricket is a civilised pastime, a walk in the park compared with a day in Kabul. Afghanistan and its players confront death and its threat far more readily, so cricket and its pressures are a welcome relief.
Despite these circumstances, the youngest cricketing nation at the ICC Cricket World Cup happens to have some of the biggest expectations upon their developing shoulders.
“Our people’s expectation is higher now. They want us to win every game. They always support us. Everywhere. You always see them in the ground, supporting us. All around the world,” Shahidi beamed.
But that support is not happy-go-lucky. Their fans are much like those from other cricket-mad nations in Asia. Every ball matters and winning is the only currency. It is not enough to take part. They must compete and then topple the more established national teams.
“They don’t want us to lose. Whenever we lose, they are sad for us,” the batsman lamented after their loss to South Africa in Cardiff. “We wanted to do well. I know we have the ability to do much better than this.”
There is gritty pride mingled with helplessness in this team. Their best player, Rashid Khan, is among the very best at his trade but the depth is not quite there yet.
Learning from the Tigers
Time is what Afghanistan need, time to learn and build. Time to shed their fears and embrace this new beginning. They could learn a lot from Bangladesh. The Tigers were toothless in their formative years, taking thumping after thumping.
Bangladesh was granted full Test status on 26 June 2000 but still crawled into the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. A sense of their early chaos was evident in Pietermaritzburg of all places. Local net bowlers terrorised most of their players with pace and bounce, before Chaminda Vaas of Sri Lanka took four wickets from the opening four balls of the 10th game of the tournament. It was a procession.
Bangladesh were routed for 124, with the then 17-year-old Mashrafe Mortaza scoring 28 runs at the bottom of the order to get them beyond triple figures. It was difficult to watch and, surely, to be part of for young Mortaza.
Afghanistan have also had their procession in a World Cup. They lost four wickets for just one run, in 10 balls of mayhem against South Africa. They also winced in despair, as they were blown away with precious little in the way of resistance.
But every loss is a lesson on their way to taking their rightful place at cricket’s most elevated table. They are a Test nation, but they are still very much in school.
From boys to men
That baby-faced Mortaza has gone on to become a respected veteran, leading his side to heights one might not have thought possible on that unforgiving day in February 2003, shows just how much Bangladesh have grown as a cricket team.
Today, they are genuine contenders, capable of defeating the world’s best. Their players are no longer shackled by doubt. It also helps that they have one of the world’s finest players in Shakib Al-Hasan, a fearless batsman and wily spinner whose sense of occasion has won him admirers and plaudits around the world.
Shakib grew up in a developing system, where his skills were pushed to the limit to get the very best out of him. He was encouraged to play his shots, to be aggressive, to believe. Afghanistan, whose ascension to cricket’s top table took place only last year, must look to the Tigers for inspiration.
Twenty20 leagues have encouraged a lot more of Afghanistan’s players to integrate into a higher level of cricket right away. If Bangladesh had to ride a rocky road, their hardships paved the way for the likes of Afghanistan and Ireland.
“We play a lot of cricket now. We play in all leagues around the world. We were very excited about playing in the World Cup. To be a full member, as one of the top 10 nations, is the best feeling in the world for us,” Shahidi smiled.
It is no small feat. Just a year ago, Afghanistan took their first steps as a cricketing adult in a historic Test against India. It had to be India. They are the gateway to cricket prosperity and their blessing matters now more than ever. For Afghanistan to make their Test bow against the biggest bhai (brother) in the world would have meant everything to them.
It was truly cricketing David and Goliath, and the two met again at this World Cup. Little Afghanistan almost pulled off a David narrative of their own in Southampton, restricting the Indian giants to 224 for eight, before falling tantalisingly short in the thrilling chase.
The headlines said India’s Mohammed Shami took a hat-trick to finish the match off, but had his first victim of that sequence, Mohammad Nabi, struck him clean and over Hardik Pandya’s head for six, the biggest shock of the World Cup may well have been completed. The reverberations from that toppling of a Goliath would have been heard right around the world.
Big ambitions for a small cricketing nation
“When we beat Pakistan [in a World Cup warm-up match], the confidence went up. We know that we are a good team now, not like before,” said Shahidi.
They are no longer satisfied with being at the tournament. They are desperate for a headline scalp, as are their people back home. Ambition seldom sleeps easily next to patience and Afghan cricket has itchy feet. They are here now and the next step is to show that they truly belong.
“We can beat any team on the day when we play good cricket. Our batting is just not doing well right now,” Shahidi rued.
It was ironic, then, that it was the bowling at the death that cost them victory against Pakistan in their penultimate fixture of the World Cup. They had their neighbours panicked, cornered and confronted with the reality of their tournament ending.
Sadly, Gulbadin Naib had a day to forget with ball in hand. His ninth over went for 18 runs, opening the door for Pakistan once more. It was he who bowled the final over, and watched helplessly as Imad Wasim added the finishing touches to Pakistan’s innings.
Naib looked like the loneliest man in the world at that point. Had Afghanistan held on to pip Pakistan, they would have felt like they had won a little part of the World Cup.
Cricket must embrace economic juggernauts
Derailing the Pakistani charge would have made the pain of their previous losses bearable. But they couldn’t quite get there. Afghanistan are hurting, but they are young and learning.
For them and fellow newbies Ireland, the key now is regular competition. Tours around the world, hard and uncompromising cricket, and a big-brotherly arm around the shoulder. The game can only grow with encouragement from the inner circle. Cricket must embrace those outside this circle: Canada, the United States and Nigeria are all gathering a head of cricketing steam.
The honest endeavours of Afghanistan and the like are paving the paths of these economic juggernauts to the big time. Imagine a future World Cup in which Afghanistan and America meet on the field to exchange bouncers instead of bombs and gunfire. These things are possible when a sport like cricket opens its arms for all.
Bangladesh took an eternity to get out of the blocks because they were members in name but not in games against the best teams in the world, which they desperately needed for development. Eventually, the doors opened and the changes are there for all to see. Afghanistan want that, too.
They have talented players who have already had to overcome so much before even stepping on to a cricket field. And given time and the backing to which the International Cricket Council has committed, who knows just how high Afghan dreams may yet fly.