Afghanistan’s cricket future looks promising, not least because of India

Afghanistan owes a measure of its progress to the India cricket board and its generosity in providing to the embattled Afghan cricketers the use of ‘home’ grounds in India.

One of the players on the Afghanistan Cricket team. Photo: Twitter @ACBofficials

On February 28, 2022, hard-hitting Afghanistani batsman-cum-wicketkeeper Rahmanullah Gurbaz hammered an unbeaten 110-ball 106 against host Bangladesh in the third and final One-day International (ODI) in Chattogram. The 20-year-old opener slammed seven boundaries and four sixes, scoring his runs at an excellent strike rate of 96.36 — his third century in just nine ODIs, having scored a hundred on debut against Ireland.

Gurbaz’s pyrotechnics helped Afghanistan win the match, and nine days later Indian Premier League (IPL) franchise Gujarat Titans picked him as a replacement for England’s Jason Roy. No eyebrow was raised at the Gujarat Titans’ decision; what was surprising was how Gurbaz went unsold at the IPL auction in February despite being on the shortlist of a few franchises. But auctions are just like that — unpredictable and subject to many variables.

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Gurbaz is one of the many naturally gifted cricketers that war and conflict-battered Afghanistan continues to produce. These players provide promise and hope to the country that is going through tumultuous times and economic uncertainty. But in spite of the grim political situation in Afghanistan, its future in cricket, by all accounts, looks bright, possibly because of its huge popularity among the masses, despite limited modern infrastructure. This can be said based on two factors — a reservoir of talent and the recent results of matches against various countries that have given the Afghan masses something to cheer about amid the gloom surrounding acute food shortages. They have been giving tough competition to their well-established opponents, particularly in the shortest format.

Taliban and cricket

After the Taliban took over the reins on August 15, 2021, cricket in Afghanistan has, by and large, remained unaffected and untouched by the changes. Only a couple of series — against Pakistan and a tour of Australia — were postponed in the aftermath of the change in political power. Largely, Afghanistan remained on the track and they competed in the T20 World Cup in the UAE and undertook a bilateral tour of Bangladesh. Besides, they put up good performances against Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, who they ‘hosted’ in Oman, and Ireland. And the Afghanistani colts finished a creditable fourth at the under-19 World Cup, after giving Australia a real scare in the third-place playoff match.

These matches show that cricket has, significantly, not become a casualty since the Taliban takeover. The Taliban only effected changes within the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) and Rashid Khan, their best-known international cricketer, quit the T20 captaincy alleging that he was not consulted when the team for the T20 World Cup was selected. Afghanistan’s bilateral and multilateral series have gone on as scheduled – barring the maiden Test tour of Australia late last year being postponed and a ‘home’ series against Pakistan in Sri Lanka due to logistical reasons/Covid soon after the political changes. The reason Cricket Australia gave for the postponement was that the ACB, obviously on instructions from the Taliban, was not going to support women’s cricket. However, since then the ACB seems to have scaled down its rigid stand, with its head, Azizullah Fazli, saying in September that women could still be allowed to play the game.

Further, it is significant to note that the ICC has not penalised the ACB nor barred it from fielding its teams in multi-nation World Cups following the change in government in Afghanistan. Obviously, the ICC has realised and appreciated – like in the case of the stalled India-Pakistan bilateral series because of political reasons — that the ACB was helpless in the changed circumstances. Importantly, domestic tournaments are continuing to be played in Afghanistan.

Craze for cricket

Afghanistan has made rapid strides in international cricket after it became an ICC Affiliate Member in 2001, an Associate Member in 2013 and a Full Member in 2017, meaning it could play Test matches. Before that, in 2009, it had become eligible to play ODIs. The next year, it made its T20 International debut. Afghanistan played their maiden Test against India in 2018. Interestingly, Afghanistan’s first major title triumph had come in 2007, before they got the ICC status in any of the formats. That was when they emerged joint champions, along with Oman, at the maiden edition of the Asian Cricket Council’s T20I Trophy in Kuwait.

Afghanistan has lost all six Test matches they have played so far. Nothing surprising in that as it is the toughest format. The two shorter formats suit Afghani players the most. It gels perfectly with their physical makeup, mindset and lifestyle — aggressive and in-the-face attitude. No surprises, therefore, that the T20 format is the most popular in the war-ravaged country and is widely played, both formally and informally. Another advantage of this format is that it helps them pick the talented from a wide pool of players who express themselves the best in the 20-over-per-innings games.

Of the three formats, Afghanistan have taken the biggest strides in the shortest one and progressed much faster than some of the established countries. Even in 50-over cricket their growth is admirable. They first qualified for the 50-over World Cup in 2015 and beat Scotland, a country with deep and old cricket roots, to make their presence felt. On their T20 World Cup debut in 2016, Afghanistan shocked the eventual champions West Indies in a league match.

Afghans and T20

T20 cricket requires quick scoring batsmen, accurate bowlers who could contain batters and razor-sharp fielders. Afghanistan have a number of class players with these inbuilt characteristics that have helped the country win 61 of their 91 T20 Internationals so far, for a success rate of 67.03 per cent, which is quite good for a relative newcomer.

Currently, Afghanistan are ranked eighth in the ICC T20 team rankings and tenth in ODIs. Rankings, however, could be deceiving, and Afghanistan at times seem better than their positions. Also, home matches help countries improve their rankings, but Afghanistan have not yet hosted any international matches, mainly due to a lack of international standard infrastructure.

Another big issue that Afghanistan faces is not of their own making; it is the age-old biases of world cricket. Big guns like India, Australia and England still reluctantly play Afghanistan, thus depriving them of crucial experience that would help them grow faster as a team. Afghanistan have brilliant, talented individuals, perhaps at par with the best in the world. But to grow and improve as a team, they need to play against the top teams and under pressure. That has not happened so far.

Afghanistan’s hopes of making progress basically hinge more on T20 format/players, the 50-over ODI matches and the least in the five-day Test matches. Their future will also depend on what view the Taliban government takes of cricket, going forward, and how the ICC assesses the situation vis-à-vis management of the game in that country. So far, there have not been any major issues, really.

India’s helping hand

Afghanistan owes a measure of its progress to India and its generosity in providing to the embattled Afghan cricketers the use of ‘home’ grounds in Greater Noida, a suburb of New Delhi, and hill town Dehradun, in Lucknow, and briefly in Chennai down south. Since Afghanistan could not hold home matches at home, largely due to infrastructure issues and partly due to logistical issues at times, the Indian cricket board, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), extended its helping hand to its South Asian counterparts in giving them necessary support.

The Afghans were first based at the Greater Noida Sports Complex Ground and shifted to the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Dehradun, before making the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Ekana Cricket Stadium in Lucknow their ‘home’. Afghanistan also played Tests, One-day Internationals, and T20 Internationals at these venues with international teams.

The Afghan cricketers enjoyed the good facilities at these centres, including turf pitches, and felt at home even off the field. They got their favourite food here, and the weather in northern India suited them. Communication with the locals in India has also not been an issue as almost all Afghan players can understand and speak in Hindi as well as English, besides their mother tongues Dari and Pashto.

Outstanding players

Afghanistan have several players who are world-class and hold a lot of promise for the future. Swashbuckling left-handed opener Hazratullah Zazai, Gurbaz, bowling all-rounder Karim Janat, and opening batsman Usman Ghani, to name just a few, are among the most talented on show. Besides, experienced leg-spinner Rashid Khan, who is in great demand in almost every T20 league of the world, including the IPL, and Mohammad Nabi, their most experienced current T20 player, continue to be the guiding force for the youngsters.

The ICC rankings acknowledge these youngsters’ capabilities. Zazai is ranked 13th on the T20I batting rankings while Rashid is ranked fifth and off-spinner Mujeeb ur Rahman is eighth on the batting charts. And Nabi is the top-ranked T20I all-rounder. On the ODI bowlers’ list, Mujeeb is fifth and Rashid is ninth while Nabi is ranked second and Rashid fourth among the all-rounders. When these talented and dynamic players join hands for Afghanistan they form an exciting bunch, more so in the shortest format with which they look perfectly in sync.

For their senior national team, the next major stop is the 2020 T20 World Cup in Australia in October-November, and the 50-over World Cup in 2023 in India. Afghanistan has appeared in four T20 World Cups and twice in the 50-over World Cups. Expect one or two upset wins for Afghanistan in these tournaments.

And if the core players remain fit, injury-free and maintain their form until October they could be more than a match at the T20 World Cup in Australia. All in all, Afghanistan’s cricket future, indeed, looks promising – with or without the Taliban in power — thanks to a rich reservoir of young talent from a widening pool of aspiring cricketers, eager to showcase their craft.

(The author is a senior New Delhi-based sports journalist. Views are personal. He can be contacted at sportingage@gmail.com)

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