Lets go back to the 2003 ICC Cricket World Cup, co-hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Shane Warne and co led Australia to their second consecutive world title, continuing the dominance of the baggy green across the cricketing landscape that would not end until the twilight of the decade.
A few months later, in May 2003, a very different tournament was taking place. Thanks to a last minute sponsorship deal, the snazzy sounding First Olympia Lube Oil Cricket Tournament was born. This was an event to find the best players in Afghanistan to create an U17, U19 and senior team. As we all know, the country was suffering at this time from huge internal and external conflict with superpowers from all over the world entering this naturally beautiful land. But through word of mouth, the country’s small cricket community organised a tournament, comprising of 14 teams, with players travelling from across the nation and uniting over their love of the game.
“Cricket is the only hope for promoting peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and it is the best source for engaging youngsters in positive activities”.
These are the words of Naveed Yousafzai, the current Media and Marketing Manager for the Afghanistan Cricket Board, and the youngsters present that day have since more than just ‘engaged’ with the game.
During the tournament, in a match between the Kabul Academy and the International Security Assistance Force, a 16 year-old named Asghar Stanikzai stole the show, scoring 65 runs and taking five wickets on his way to claiming the man-of-the-match award. 13 years later he scored another half-century against Sri Lanka at the famous Eden Gardens in Kolkata before captaining his team to a historic victory against the eventual champions West Indies.
Four other boys who played that day represented their country at the recent World T20 in India. One being Mohammad Nabi, a name that will make England fans shudder as he took two wickets and engineered a run out in one chaotic over as England slumped to 57-6 and were on the brink of exiting the tournament early. England captain Eoin Morgan probably still has nightmares about ‘the one that didn’t turn’ but in fact cannoned into his off stump to dismiss him for a golden duck.
It is clear that the Afghanistan cricket team has come an extraordinarily long way since its inception 13 years ago but how can their progress be measured?
Lets go back again to 2003, where perhaps the most notable thing about the tournament was the emergence of the underdogs, who showed that they could play rough with the big boys. Yes, Zimbabwe are technically a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) due to their Test Match status, but they were at the time, and have continued to act as, a bridge between the associate nations, (Ireland, the Netherlands, Kenya etc.), and powerhouses such as India and Australia. They are one of the rare cricket playing countries that compete regularly against both the best in the world and those scrapping at the lower end of the ladder. It is in this way that the ability of an associate nation can be judged, based on how well they face up to Zimbabwe compared to a Test playing nation.
Since 2011, Zimbabwe have beaten New Zealand and Pakistan in Test Matches and South Africa in a One Day International (ODI). This is a remarkable achievement, especially the Test victories as that is a format in which luck alone cannot win a game and certainly not a series. Clearly these wins against three of the best cricket teams in the world suggest that Zimbabwe are not merely spectators but challenging those at the top.
So explain this; in December 2015, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe contested a five match ODI series, which the Afghans won.
Only months earlier Zimbabwe had chased down a mammoth total of 304 against New Zealand, with a bowling attack that included Trent Boult, joint leading wicket taker at the 50 over World Cup the previous February, proving this team had batting prowess. Yet Afghanistan bowled out this same line up for a meagre 82 runs in the first ODI. The batsmen then proved their worth by chasing down scores of over 250 in the 2nd and the deciding 5th game.
Zimbabwe have beaten many of the worlds top teams but they were taken apart by a team formed only 13 years ago, a series result that took the Afghans into the top 10 of the ICC ODI rankings.
So why have Afghanistan suddenly emerged as a potential threat to the natural order of cricket?
Naveed Yousafzai commented on a “professional domestic structure” being implemented, with tournaments across all formats of the game and youth international players as well as first team domestic players being fully professional. Additionally, the level of coaching in the country has risen dramatically. The cricketing community’s attention was caught when ex-Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq was appointed head coach of the national team. Inzamam’s insight and experience would have been invaluable at the T20 World Cup as handling the big occasion is of paramount importance and the Pakistani has had a few important matches during his long career.
This appointment sent a message that Afghanistan can continue to challenge and shock the major cricketing nations and getting an established name to coach the team will only raise their profile.
On their recent success Yousafzai said “this is the output of 15 years of struggle and hard work for the Afghanistan cricket team”. But hasn’t it been worth it.