Pakistan, Afghanistan gear up for the other growing cricket rivalry
Pakistan have faced Afghanistan only once before in a T20 match, which they won. But that was pre-Rashid Khan. In their last two ODIs, Afghanistan have run them close. The cricketing history between the two neighbours may be brief, but players, no matter how averse to politics, would be aware of their long-standing geopolitical tension.
Cricketers try to steer clear of these non-sporting issues, but not the supporters. The animosity between fans of the two teams erupted during their last exchange in the 2019 ODI World Cup at Headingley when punches were exchanged and things thrown. There was a pitch invasion too after the match before police intervened to calm things down.
“The 2019 World Cup (incident) shouldn't have happened. This is a request to all the fans; whatever comes at the end, this game gives lots of unity and brings nations together, not to have those kind of accidents,” said Rashid Khan before their Group 2 face-off against Pakistan in Dubai on Friday. “I hope they remain cool and calm and just focus and enjoy the game; who plays better on the day, that team wins.”
Rashid Khan is the best T20 spinner in the world and the most economical bowler in Indian Premier League history. His family lived in Peshawar as refugees and he played his early cricket there as did many other Afghan cricketers. But he speaks very little about it in his frequent Indian TV chat shows. Though he plays in the Pakistan Super League too, the general feeling in Pakistan is he has more Indian friends.
None of that parallel narrative on the outside is more complex than the challenge facing Afghanistan. They have continued to play cricket in exile, first in the UAE, then in India, and now with the return of Taliban, they won’t know where next.
“Things are getting better. Getting normal back home and hopefully that's something which we only hope to see much more in the future as well,” said Khan, who quit as captain protesting that he was not consulted over team selection amid the regime change.
“We as a team, we're here to play good cricket and give them (fans) the kind of performance, and the kind of win, they can celebrate there. That is something as players we have in our hand. That is something we’ll try to do in the whole competition.”
Many Afghan expatriates living in the UAE look at Afghanistan-Pakistan as a rivalry to watch. With T20 being Afghanistan’s format of choice, they believe their team can topple the powerful Pakistan side, which beat India by 10 wickets and then overcame New Zealand.
Despite the troubles back home, the Mohammad Nabi-led Afghanistan’s first showing in the World Cup was commanding. Khan and Mujeeb ur Rahman blew Scotland away, serving a reminder that they can no longer be taken for granted by the top teams. “It’s a strong unit. You can’t say we will roll them over,” Saqlain Mushtaq, Pakistan’s interim head coach, said. “They have a wonderful bowling attack, especially spinners. And when they go for batting, they play fearless cricket. That kind of team can be dangerous.”
Pakistan were Afghanistan’s first full ICC member opponents, at a match played in the UAE in 2012. But there is unlikely to be any friendly contest. Pakistan are the favourites. So far they have shown no signs of distraction that usually swirls around them. “In a mega event, you play with all the teams with the same intensity, attitude and mindset,” Saqlain said.
Pakistan cricket is well-oiled from the PSL experience of the players, as India and New Zealand found out. If Afghanistan have their mystery spinners, Pakistan has an impressive fast-bowling cast that can blow away the less experienced Afghanistan batters. If left-arm Shaheen Shah Afridi was the star against India, Harris Rauf stole the show versus New Zealand.