One of the most endearing images of the 2015 World Cup was Afghanistan’s Shapoor Zadran running arms aloft after hitting the winning run against Scotland in Dunedin. It was a nerve-jangling first-ever World Cup win for the war-torn nation, whose passion for the game has now powered them to Test-match status.
Just last year they became the 10th Test-playing nation in the world and a couple of months back posted their first-ever win in the longest format with a win over Ireland in their adopted home ground in Dehradun.
Cricket’s tryst with Afghanistan began in refugee camps back home with four of their pillars — Mohammad Nabi, Dawlat Zadran, Asghar Stanikzai (Afghan) and Shapoor Zadran coming through that system. Progression began through the ranks of ICC World Cricket Leagues and then through the ICC Qualifying Tournament for World Cup.
The Scotland win in 2015 World Cup gave a big boost to sport back home. The emergence of T20 cricket and support from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has helped them make rapid strides.
Former India batsman Lalchand Rajput took over as coach and Greater Noida ground in Delhi’s NCR region was given to aid the Afghans. After the last World Cup, the team had impressive series wins Zimbabwe, UAE and Ireland and drew an ODI series against West Indies 1-1 before being handed a Test status.
In the meantime, the T20 revolution introduced a one-in-a-lifetime talent in Rashid Khan. Still only 20 years of age, Rashid is a T20 veteran with appearances in Indian Premier League, Big Bash League and Caribbean Premier League.
“2017 was the start and everything changed from there. IPL is a format where if you perform, you will be renowned throughout the world. There are only top quality players and teams here and doing well here gives lot of confidence,” Rashid told CricketNext recently.
His ODI stats are startling: 57 games, 123 wickets and an average of 15. Making him one of the most dangerous ODI cricketers who will be making his World Cup debut at the 2019 edition.
“We’ll try to play good cricket in the World Cup — the kind of cricket we played in the Asia Cup. We want to replicate that, we pushed all the top teams in Asia Cup and we want to do the same. We’ll try to play good and positive cricket. We have to give our 100 per cent and try to perform under-pressure. If we can do these two things, we’ll be very happy,” Rashid said.
The road to the World Cup has not been a smooth one. One of the favourites heading into the 2018 World Cup Qualifying event which also had the likes of West Indies and Ireland, Afghanistan lost almost all of their league games — even to the likes of Hong Kong.
The turn-around began from the Super Six stage as Afghanistan sensationally turned their form and fortunes around to emerge victorious from the tournament, even trouncing the Chris Gayle-powered West Indies in the final.
Mohammed Shahzad was one batsman who emerged from the tournament and carried on that form to the 2018 Asia Cup. The portly opener is a pocket-dynamite with strike-rate of 88 and five international ODI hundreds to his name.
(AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
He’ll have young Hazratullah Zazai for company. The powerfully built Zazai had built quite the reputation in the last one year, hitting six sixes in an over in the Afghanistan Premier League and blasting 162 in a T20 game against Ireland earlier this year.
Just months before the World Cup kicks off, Afghanistan selection committee decided that they needed a new leader in charge to replace Asghar Afghan. The selectors appointed three different captains for the different formats with all-rounder Gulabdin Naib given charge of the ODIs.
Senior players Nabi and Rashid tweeted in support of Afghan and criticized the move of the selectors.
“The fact is that Afghanistan is not going to win the World Cup with either (Naib or Aghan) of the captains. We are looking to make a transition and planning for the next World Cup which will be four years down the line. We don’t get as many games against quality opposition like we will get in the World Cup, so the new captain’s planning will begin here.
Being a senior member of the side & having seen the rise of Afghanistan cricket @ashrafghani I don’t think it’s the right time to change the captain before the WC @afgexecutive The team has gelled really well under #Asghar & personally feel he is the right man to lead us @hmohib
— Mohammad Nabi (@MohammadNabi007) April 5, 2019
The matter has been handled very professionally. Gulbadin has been playing for the last 17 years and he is great friends with Nabi and Rashid. The seniors will be supporting the new captain,” Afghanistan chief selector Dawlat Khan Ahmadzai told CricketNext recently.
The likes of Rashid, Nabi, Shahzad, Afghan and Rahmat Shah form a powerful core for the Afghans but as their chief selector said they will be hard-pushed to make the final four. A few surprises though will not be beyond their reached especially against the likes of West Indies, who they defeated in the qualifying tournament, and Sri Lanka, who are struggling in the ODIs to recreate the golden days of the late ’90s and early 2000.
Coach Phil Simmons’ side will open their campaign against defending champions Australia on June 1 in Bristol and it would not be beyond the Afghans to give Australia a run for their money. Expect some fireworks from their fledgling Test nation.
June 1 v Australia (Bristol)
June 4 v Sri Lanka (Cardiff)
June 8 v New Zealand (Taunton)
June 15 v South Africa (Cardiff)
June 18 v England (Manchester)
June 22 v India (Southampton)
June 24 v Bangladesh (Southampton)
June 29 v Pakistan (Leeds)
July 4 v West Indies (Leeds)