ICC World Cup 2019: Afghanistan fans - Losing but soaking it every bit

Bangladesh boosted their bid to reach the World Cup semi-finals as Shakib Al Hasan’s superb all-round display inspired a 62-run win over Afghanistan on Monday.
General view of fans inside the stadium.(Action Images via Reuters)
General view of fans inside the stadium.(Action Images via Reuters)
Updated on Jun 25, 2019 07:50 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, Southampton | BySomshuvra Laha

Perched atop the grass mound outside the Shane Warne Stand at the Rose Bowl, Jamshed Khan Shinwari is busy directing a few Afghanistan supporters to their seating areas while also answering his phone. About 20 Afghans are milling around him, smartly turned out in salwar kameez, massive turbans and pakols (traditional Afghan caps), waving their ornate black-red-green flags and chanting ‘Afghanistan zindabad’. “Give me a minute please,” says Shinwari. “It’s been a busy morning as you can see. But I need to do it,” says Shinwari, a self-employed Afghan living in Portsmouth, around 25km away, for over five years. He is one of the few Afghan supporters to have tickets for all the team’s nine group games. “Look at me! My voice has turned hoarse. But does that mean I will not cheer for my team?”

The gravel path leading to the mound is swamped with Bangladesh fans. Here and there though peek out warm, smiling faces chanting the names of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Gulbadin Naib. They are greeting with warm hugs, and more smiles. This is nothing short of a reunion for Afghans in England. And they have come from all over the country—Portsmouth, Southampton, London, Birmingham, and even Leeds. “It’s almost surreal that we are able to stand here and support our team. Ten years ago, we were still struggling to recover from the war. And see where we are now. Results don’t matter. It’s our duty to support the team,” chimed in a fan passing by.

Emotions are running high. Afghanistan is living a dream. Two days back, they were on the verge of producing arguably the biggest upset in World Cup history. Against Bangladesh, they have more than a decent chance. It has prompted an outpouring of requests for tickets, even though the Rose Bowl is almost sold out and Afghanistan’s batting doesn’t evoke much confidence. Those with extra tickets are treated like kings. That explains the clusters of people under a huge tree. The most striking feature of the Afghanistan fans is that they move in groups without really knowing each other. There is no official ‘fan army’ but in these days of social media, all one needs is a smart phone. Shinwari is one of the moderators of ‘Afghan Society Portsmouth’, a WhatsApp group that is draining his phone battery. “There are some people who can’t come for the match. I need to update them with scores and fall of wickets,” says Shinwari.

Inside the stadium it is organised chaos. Bangladesh fans clearly are in the majority. Dressed in red and green with quirky hats and stuffed tigers, they are setting the mood by posing for cameras and orchestrating the Mexican Wave. Afghans however are patiently waiting for their moment to come, waiting for Nabi and Rashid to wield the magic. Their wait bears fruit. Tamim Iqbal is clean bowled by Nabi, setting off wild celebrations in pockets of the stadium. Najeebullah, only 24, quickly pulls out his phone to inform his father. He informs that there are around 500 Afghan families in Southampton. Since all can’t come, he asks his father to spread the good news. Watching cricket is still pretty much a passion of the younger generation, says Shinwari. “The older people are not really involved. They don’t understand the excitement of watching Rashid in action.”

It’s impossible not to get fazed by Rashid’s repertoire. But somehow he is not getting any breakthrough, provoking some Afghans to scream in an unfamiliar language, probably Pashtun. The frustration is palpable when Mushfiqur Rahim dances down the pitch to hit a six and complete his fifty. Bangladesh have lost Shakib Al Hasan, but Rahim is digging them out of trouble. Afghanistan don’t really have an answer for him.

Why are you here despite knowing you are likely to lose? “It doesn’t matter. It’s important to stand beside the team,” says Shinwari. “There is one more reason, you know. Some TV people are here too. If we appear on that, people back home will be happy to know the team has some support everywhere they are playing,” he says.

As long as the Bangladeshi pacers were operating, Afghanistan gave their fans reasons to cheer. But when Shakib removed Rahmat Shah in the 11th over, it was a familiar feeling for them. Shakib took two more in the 29th over and the writing was on the wall. “We never really had the batting. That’s the reason we lost against Sri Lanka,” rues Ahmad, who had come from London. Najibullah Zadran’s wicket wrapped up the party for a few Afghans as they start to trickle out of the Rose Bowl.

Some still wait till the end. Another match, another defeat. Afghanistan fans are taking it on the chin. They will be okay. “We don’t have the experience. Inshallah we will be much better the next time,” says Hameed. For them, this World Cup isn’t over till it’s over. Certainly not before Saturday’s match against Pakistan. “India toh dost hai. Unse haar manzoor hai. Par Pakistan se nahi. Agar hum woh match jeete toh humhare liye World Cup mukkamal hai. (India are friends. We can accept defeat against them, but not against Pakistan. If we win that, we will consider our World Cup campaign complete.)”

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