The man who built the foundation
This modern fairy-tale would not have been possible without the efforts of former national coach Taj Malik, who almost single-handedly introduced the country to the concept of structured cricket. He assembled a bunch of talented cricketers, some of whom continue to be part of the national side. Driven to the Pakistani refugee camp of Kacha Gari on account of the Soviet invasion, Malik took to the game in the late 1980s, highly influenced by Pakistan’s first Test series victory in England in 1987, televised live in the camp. Over the next few years, he not only managed to generate interest for the game among fellow Afghan refugees, but also set up a team – the Afghan Cricket Club. The team, which included future stars Nawroz Mangal and Karim Sadiq, gradually developed into a formidable side capable of competing against established Pakistani cricket clubs in Peshawar.
Malik relocated to his native country, and assumed the role of national coach and general secretary of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, established by Allah Dad Noori in 1995 with the Taliban’s permission. The country was recognized by the ICC as an Affiliate Member in 2001, and almost immediately embarked on its first tour to Pakistan, amid glaring media attention in the wake of the US-led war to overthrow the Taliban. The team made their mark, drawing two matches against far superior opponents.
The next six years were a struggle for Afghanistan, which continued to be helmed by Malik, but they progressed to Division Five of the World Cricket League (WCL), which included Japan and Jersey. The Afghans tasted major success in 2008 when they defeated Jersey to win the Division Five tournament. There was plenty of drama surrounding the tournament, with Malik, whose love for the game and confidence in his team bordered on the eccentric, declaring he would throw himself into the Atlantic Ocean if Afghanistan failed to progress to the next division. The vow became redundant after number nine batsman, Hasti Gul, rescued the team from 42-7 (chasing 81), for a memorable victory by two wickets.
Afghanistan’s biggest win coincided with the controversial demise of their coach. A hardliner, Malik often faced flak for being too emotive. Former Pakistan Test cricketer Kabir Khan assumed the national cricket coaching duties. Malik outlined the ill-treatment meted out to him in a discussion with ESPNCricinfo’s Tim Wigmore:
“Up to Jersey, there was no government involvement in cricket, and there was no support from any department. When cricket became more popular all people got interested, all the nation got interested, and the government removed me from my post. They told me, ‘Now we are going to the big stage and you are a low-level coach.’ But I’d done the most difficult job to help the team play with a hard ball, and I gathered the team and motivated them.”
He returned for a brief stint as an assistant coach under Khan, but vacated that position in 2012, and is currently part of Tableegh, a religious movement.
His successor’s journey was no less rocky, with Khan resigning in 2010, citing overt interference from the cricket board, and though he returned in 2012, after promises of lesser intrusion by administrators on the sport, the dichotomy between the two cogs in the country’s cricket mechanism was clearly evident.
The spectacular rise
With limited resources in their home country, and operating predominantly out of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan continued with their momentum garnered from their Division Five victory. They defeated Cayman Islands to win the WCL Division Three tournament, but failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup. But by finishing sixth, they were awarded ODI status – just five years after they started playing organised cricket.
Afghanistan’s rise continued when they beat Ireland, arguably the strongest team beyond the Test world, to qualify for the 2010 ICC World Twenty20 tournament in the West Indies. Drawn against powerhouses India and South Africa, they were inevitably knocked out in the first round but potential was evident within their talented ranks.
After two years of consistency, Afghanistan faced their biggest challenge thus far – playing a full-strength Australia in a one-off ODI at the Sharjah Cricket Association Stadium in mid-2012. Audiences expecting the cricket giants to steamroll the minnows were surprised. After winning the toss, Australia struggled against sustained aggression from the Afghan bowlers, but a late onslaught from Michael Hussey and George Bailey saved the four-time world champions, who ended on 272-8. The Afghans fought admirably against Australia’s hostile bowling attack, which included Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson. But their inexperience was visible and they lost wickets regularly. But they managed to pass 200 due to stellar efforts from Asghar Stanikzai and Nabi. They lost by 66 runs but were admired in defeat.
In the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan were competitive against India. After winning the toss, Afghanistan unleashed their pace ammunition on the experienced Indian opening duo of Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Surprisingly, it was Shapoor Zadran, the lanky left-arm pacer reminiscent of a heftier Wasim Akram, who got the better of both openers, leaving India reeling at 22-2. India were sedate until a late blitz from Virat Kohli and captain MS Dhoni lifted the total to a respectable 159. With bat, Afghanistan were hardly bothered by the Indian pace attack comprising Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji. After 10 overs, Afghanistan were 69-2, requiring a very gettable 91 runs off the remaining 60 deliveries, with 8 wickets in hand. The introduction of spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Yuvraj Singh exposed Afghanistan’s weakness against slow bowling. Wickets tumbled but Afghanistan’s batting was fearless, with Nabi hitting a 17-ball 31, which included two fours and two sixes. They needed 44 runs in 24 deliveries, a statistic expectedly achieved eight times out of ten by chasing teams, but Nabi’s dismissal was crucial and India won by 23 runs.
After being granted Associate membership by the ICC in June 2013, Afghanistan won historic qualification for the 2015 World Cup. During the recent Asia Cup in Bangladesh they reduced Pakistan to 117-6 before Umar Akmal produced a special knock of 102 off 89 balls to propel Pakistan to 248. The Afghans chased steadily, and were untroubled against the famed Pakistan quicks, but spin, yet again, proved to be their undoing. Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Hafeez and Shahid Afridi claimed six wickets and stifled the run rate. Pakistan won by 72 runs.
In their next match against Bangladesh, the Afghans scored 254 runs driven by Stanikzai’s composed 90 and leg-spinner Samiullah Shenwari’s quick-fire 69-ball 81. Afghanistan’s opening bowlers Shapoor and Hamid Hassan started well and wickets fell regularly. Bangladesh were reduced to 165-8, and Afghanistan were on the brink of history – never before had they beaten a Test playing nation. A 22-ball 41 by medium pacer Ziaur Rahman pushed the score beyond 200 without the loss of any further wickets. Tension was soaring in the Afghan camp – a loss, after getting this close, would have been devastating. But Nabi, in his off-spinning avatar, kept his cool and took the remaining two wickets, as Afghanistan won by 32 runs, triggering jubilant celebrations among teammates, compatriots and cricket aficionados.
The way forward
While most teams participating in the 2015 World Cup have to concentrate only on the game, Afghanistan’s cricketers also need to emerge from the quagmire of terror which has almost become synonymous with the country’s history. Last year, Nabi’s father was kidnapped for a ransom of $2 million, while the Afghan captain was playing in Ireland. Though that crisis was handled proficiently by the government, and Nabi’s father was released, the degree to which terror is imbibed in the Afghan psyche is captured in the captain’s calm words after qualifying for the World Cup.
“It was a lot of fun as we went back to Kabul. The path from the airport to the stadium was filled with people,” Nabi told ESPNCricinfo. “The stadium was packed, people stood in the road with flags in hand. We were all under security. We were a little fearful of a bomb blast but nothing happened, because the government had arranged for very good security. And then the Afghanistan Cricket Board threw a big party.”
I am not sure how many people would use the words “bomb blast” and “party” in adjacent sentences, but the current Afghan generation, born in an era of war and terror, has reconciled to life’s uncertainties better than most.
The team received a major jolt recently, with the resignation of Khan, who citied family reasons. The job has gone to Englishman and former New Zealand coach Andy Moles, whose knowledge of playing conditions Down Under may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Call me an optimist, but looking ahead at Afghanistan’s prospects in the upcoming World Cup, I do believe they have a fighting chance of getting past the first round. The Afghans are bracketed with Australia, England, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Bangladesh and fellow-qualifier Scotland in Pool A. The top four teams from the two pools qualify for the quarter final stage. Afghanistan should get past Scotland, and realistically can be confident against Bangladesh. Barring a miracle, it is hard to envision them beating Australia or Sri Lanka, but the relatively weak spin-attacks of England and New Zealand present an opportunity. Their best chance might be against England in Sydney on a pitch closest to the pitches in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan will not be fodder for the elite because they have an extremely potent pace attack and possess spin variety. Batting, particularly against quality spin bowling, is their weakest suit, a concern accentuated by the occasional tendency to be reckless. Collapses often eventuate. Improved fielding is a necessity too.
Malik, who is now disassociated with the game, told ESPNcricinfo that Afghanistan needs to play their natural game.
“Afghanistan has a distinct playing style. A lot of the national coaches working with the team tried to change their playing style. Like in Pakistan and India, there is a lot of spin bowling and defensive batting to rotate the strike, getting ones and twos. This was not our style. Our style was just like the style which West Indies have. We have big hitters and score a lot of runs hitting sixes and fours. In this style we won so many games from 2002 to 2009 everywhere in the world.”
On February 18, when Afghanistan walks onto the Manuka Oval in Canberra to play in the grandest ODI stage, Malik, the man called by many as the father of Afghan cricket, will be far away, on another continent, possibly listening on an unclear radio network. His efforts cannot be slighted, despite his dumping.
Afghanistan’s rise is a reminder that miracles do happen. Irrespective of how they fare in the World Cup, their growth reinforces confidence in the ideology that one man’s faith can indeed move mountains. Generations in Afghanistan should be inspired.
This article was first published in Mailer Report: http://www.mailerreport.com/#!afghanistans-cricket-fairy-tale-/ckoi