A Miraculous Comeback

Author : Muhammad Noman Ashrafi

Afghanistan’s journey so far in the world of cricket is no less than a fairy tale. Rewind to 2008, Afghanistan are an unknown side playing in Division 5 of ICC World Cricket League, forward 10 years to 2018, Afghanistan boast of having in their ranks world’s number one bowler in the shorter format of the game aged just 19 years, one of the game’s best all-rounders, and a mystery spinner who continues to bamboozle top batsmen to rise in stature across formats.

Afghanistan’s qualification for its second consecutive World cup continued its fairytale legacy and meteoric rise in world cricket. Coming into the tournament, Afghanistan were one among the two favorites alongside West Indies to finish the tournament. However, the manner in which the events unfolded was nothing short of a suspense thriller.

Few years back, very few people would have thought that Afghanistan beating sides like West Indies and Zimbabwe will actually become a norm rather than an upset.

When Afghanistan started its campaign to claim a spot in the next year’s ICC Cricket World Cup in England and Wales, they had just triumphed over Zimbabwe in UAE where they totally dominated the visitors ultimately winning the ODI series 4-1.

Afghanistan kicked off their campaign at the ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier against Scotland, a side they had faced in memorable encounters with especially the infamous World Cup game that gave Afghanistan its first win in international cricket’s biggest event. Afghanistan had elevated from an associate member to a full member while Scotland still remain an associate side. As the match progressed, the uncertainties gripped Afghans as a strong scottish batting line up spearheaded by Mcleod stood up to the likes of Rashid Khan- the current No.1 bowler in the world- and Afghanistan’s new spin prodigy, Mujeeb Zadran

Afghanistan’s second match was against Zimbabwe, a side they had just beaten convincingly in UAE. However, the match turned out to be a confidence booster for Zimbabwe instead as an unlikely batting collapse took the match to the brim ending with a victory for Zimbabwe by a margin as narrow as 2 runs.

The loss against Zimbabwe made the situation worse and the odds became a bit tricky for Afghanistan as they had to win the remaining matches to reach the super six stage of the competition. Afghanistan’s next opponents were Hong Kong who were high on confidence even though Afghanistan were still a cricket fan’s favorite for the match. However, the curse of bad form continued for the Afghans and they lost the rain-affected match which meant that they were on the brink of being eliminated from the tournament they were favorites to win.

The players were low on confidence, cricket fans could not believe what they had witnessed and many people were in shock since no one wanted a World Cup without the afghan charm in it.

Afghanistan’s chances of still qualifying for the main event were as bleak as it could have become. The only thread of hope that could give them a chance was them winning the rest of their matches and Nepal winning their match against Hong Kong. The chances were so slim that if Hong Kong had beaten Nepal, Afghanistan would have been on their way home.

Afghanistan scraped to the super sixe stage. They still had a mountain to climb in order to qualify for the main event. However, they were given a boost when the regular captain Asghar Stanikzai was back in the squad after an appendicitis operation before the start of the tournament ruled him out from the initial games.

Afghanistan had a tough road ahead. They had to win all their remaining games and also pray for UAE to beat Zimbabwe – which seemed highly unlikely considering Zimbabwe’s great run of form in the tournament- to make it to England 2019.

Afghanistan faced Windies in their first encounter of the super six stage. The Windies boasted some great power hitters in their eleven, including Chris Gayle, one of the biggest hitters in the game. However, he was bamboozled by an unplayable delivery from Mujeeb ur Rehman, a spinner half of his age. The young spinner went on to take 3 important wickets as Windies set a relatively low target of 198 runs for Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it turned out to be a nervous finish as Afghanistan kept losing wickets after a stable partnership between Rahmat Shah and Mohammad Nabi as well as valuable cameos by Najeeb Zadran and Gulbadin Naib had set them up for an easy chase.

The men in blue put their best performance of the tournament so far to beat a strong Windies side who were unbeaten before the match. The performance lifted their spirits considerably though they were far from finished as they needed to continue the winning streak while praying for their luck to survive in the competition.

Afghanistan’s next challenge was against UAE who had enough batting power to score 297 runs against the Windies earlier in the tournament. Afghanistan were glad to welcome their regular captain, Asghar Stanikzai back into the eleven and lift the burden from Rashid Khan’s young shoulders. It seemed like it was just what Afghanistan and Rashid needed as he ran through the UAE line-up taking a much deserved five-wicket haul after a couple of shaky performances .

It was not quite a cakewalk for Afghanistan either. They were 54/5 at one point in the match chasing 178 runs and seemed destined on their way for another upset. But a match-winning 124 run partnership between Najibullah Zadran and Gulbadin Naib- who was elevated to top of the order- ensured that Afghanistan overcame yet another hurdle on their way.

While Afghanistan were gaining confidence with successive wins in the super six stage, their main concern was the match between UAE and Zimbabwe where a victory for Zimbabwe meant the end of Afghanistan’s hopes for World Cup qualification.

For the second time in the tournament, the cricket fans in the country were all praying for another team’s victory; albeit for their national team’s survival. And, it couldn’t have been more dramatic as UAE overcame Zimbabwe in a tense finish by just 3 runs in a rain-affected match. The pressure of the situation and its impact was evident from the reaction of Zimbabwean players who, in Sikandar Raza’s words,” had their dreams shattered”.

As the popular saying goes,” Fortune favors the brave”. Afghanistan now had an eye on the unthinkable- achieving the dream of qualifying for the 2019 World Cup in England and Wales after almost being eliminated from the tournament initially. They were brave enough to rise from a mediocre perrformance earlier to record successive wins in the super six stage.

Afghanistan’s most important match in the tournament was the one against Ireland. It was a virtual eliminator for both sides as the winner of the match were to claim the only remaining slot for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019. Even though Afghanistan had a relatively unsatisfactory tournament, they were still the favorites against Irish in this encounter. Ireland managed to put 209 runs on board which – though not a big total- could have been challenging enough for Afghan batsmen considering the circumstances they were in the tournament.

Afghanistan were bolstered by the return of regular wicket keeper, Mohammad Shahzad, who had been suspended for two games after picking up a demerit point in the team's loss to Zimbabwe. Shahzad’s positive approach to game and attacking nature showed what Afghanistan had missed in the previous games.

He was well supported by Gulbadin Naib, who seemed to have adapted well to his new role as opener. The pair put on Afghanistan’s highest opening stand in the tournament. However, things did not go on as smooth as Afghanistan dwelled in the nervous camp once again losing quick wickets.

Afghanistan needed a stable hand to take them home. They got that from their ‘‘captain marvelous - Asghar Stanikzai’’ as former Windies Fast Bowler turned commentator, Ian Bishop put it later. Stanikzai was visibly struggling with pain through the game, yet it could not prevent the skipper from playing, arguably one of his most memorable innings, and a captain’s knock to ensure his team’s qualification for the World Cup and complete one of the best turnarounds in the history of the game and a miraculous comeback, as Afghanistan joined West Indies on the Road to World Cup 2019. The emotions poured in as the players and cricket fans back home and abroad celebrated the feat with passion.

Afghanistan and West Indies, the two favorites ahead of the tournament, were the finalists of the ICC World Cup Qualifier 2018. Afghanistan were at the peak of their game as they excelled in all departments to complete a feat achieved only twice before when a team had risen from the dead to emerge the ultimate Champions. Pakistan under the captaincy of Imran Khan won the ICC World Cup 1992 after losses at the initial stage of the tournament while the mighty Aussies under the leadership of Steve Waugh achieved the similar feat in ICC World Cup 1999.

A firm self-belief along with the prayers, hopes and dreams of millions ensured Afghanistan pulled off a comeback that must rank among the greatest in the game’s history.