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T20 World Cup: Afghanistan hope to surmount turmoil, re-ignite T20 form

The confidence from direct qualification for the T20 World Cup took a dent due to political upheaval at home and a captaincy change
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T20 World Cup: Afghanistan hope to surmount turmoil, re-ignite T20 form(TWITTER/ACB)
Updated on Oct 17, 2021 10:41 PM IST
BySomshuvra Laha, Kolkata

On the last day of 2018, barely 18 months after their promotion to full membership status at the International Cricket Council (ICC), Afghanistan pipped Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in a three-way race to a spot in the main group stage of the T20 World Cup. Afghanistan had stitched together a dream run the previous year—wins in all seven T20Is, including a 3-0 sweep of Bangladesh in Dehradun and two each against Ireland and Zimbabwe away from their adopted home—to finish eighth on the rankings table, five points clear of Sri Lanka and 15 above Bangladesh. For the first time since the 2010 World Cup they were not required to go through a qualifying phase, a big indication that Afghanistan cricket was heading in the right direction.

On August 20, five days after the Taliban took over Kabul without resistance, Rashid Khan walked out into the Oval with Afghanistan colours painted on his cheeks. The black, red and green slowly melted away in the London night as Trent Rockets took on Southern Brave in an eliminator of The Hundred. But Khan’s message was not lost—to him, nothing had changed. Yet everything had. Soon, it was evident their women wouldn’t be allowed to play cricket, a decision that drew a sharp reaction from Cricket Australia, which threatened to cancel the one-off Test against Afghanistan.

Things seemed to come to a head some days later when Khan resigned as T20 captain after the World Cup squad was announced because he wasn’t consulted on the team. With a new acting chairman in Azizullah Fazli, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) chose to move on. It made a few changes to the initial squad and announced Mohammad Nabi—Khan’s teammate at Sunrisers Hyderabad who played just one game in the UAE leg of IPL—as the replacement captain. A week later, reports emerged that the Taliban had banned the telecast of IPL.

RELATED STORIES

It was an uncertain phase when the cricket world didn’t know what would become of Afghanistan. For a while, there was no clarity on how BCCI would react after having played a major role in Afghanistan cricket’s evolution, be it providing them “home” grounds in Greater Noida, Dehradun or Lucknow or hosting their maiden Test in Bengaluru in 2018.

 

It’s not as bad now. The Test against Australia, to be played in Hobart from November 27-December 1, is back on track. There are reports Afghanistan may visit India next year. Though more than half the team had to wait in Qatar for their visas, they could join the support staff and their franchise superstars in time to start quarantining before entering the tournament bio-bubble in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Still, it would be an understatement to describe that Afghanistan cricket has gone through a turbulent phase in the last two months. The morale can’t be great, having last played a T20I in March (against Zimbabwe) and changing captains twice since then. At a media interaction facilitated by the ICC, Nabi admitted captaining Afghanistan can be tough but promised they wouldn’t cut down on their aggression. “We have got a challenge of a difficult buildup towards the World Cup. But we just need to stay away from making excuses,” head coach Lance Klusener said from the UAE a few days ago. “We can sit and make a thousand excuses as to why we shouldn’t perform, but I think that’s going to be my focus—that we are putting aside all that for the next three or four weeks.”

Klusener feels Afghanistan have as good a chance as any other team. But exposure could be a factor like it was in the 2019 World Cup where Afghanistan lost all nine league matches. Barring Khan, Nabi, Naveen-ul Haq and Najibullah Zadran who have experience playing in franchise leagues, most of the other players were training in Afghanistan. “One of the main challenges is we don’t have home games,” said Klusener. “Every single day has been an away game. That’s been a challenge, certainly more from an administration point of view. It’s difficult enough organising a bio-bubble in your own country, let alone trying to organise that in foreign countries. That’s always been extremely difficult.”

There is no dearth of talent though. Hazratullah Zazai is a run machine who hit 16 sixes in an unbeaten 162 off 62 deliveries against Ireland in 2019. Karim Janat, a 23-year-old all-rounder, hit 100 off 57 balls in last year’s Shpageeza Cricket League (Afghanistan’s top T20 tournament), the fastest of that edition. One of the youngest teams in the tournament, Afghanistan have also made rapid strides in fielding. “The talent in the squad of ours, in our people back home and for what they have achieved in 20-odd years of international cricket is the fact that the boys have managed to pre-qualify for this T20 World Cup,” said Klusener. “That’s just insane really. People just don’t understand what a great achievement that is. I don’t think I have ever worked with another team that has such a passion for cricket, a passion for getting better.”

Undeniable also is the game’s connect with the common Afghan man. The Shpageeza Cricket League attracted 350 players in the draft for eight teams this time. In September, nearly 4,000 spectators—all men—turned up at a trial match between Peace Defenders and Peace Heroes, featuring many members of the Afghanistan team. Armed soldiers kept vigil as Taliban and Afghanistan flags were being waved in the stands.

These indicate the awareness within Taliban that cricket needs to play a major hand to give the country a new direction. Despite hiccups, Klusener says all’s well with the new management. “The Taliban has been extremely supportive. They love cricket and have made sure that the boys get what they need and that we can get to the World Cup. I think from that point of view—the fact that they are passionate about the game is good for cricket. And then we are also as a team acutely aware of our responsibility of putting a smile on the faces of people back home.”

How their women’s cricket is handled may go a long way in influencing international opinion on Afghanistan, but it also hinges on how they fare in this T20 World Cup. Doing well in Tests is still a pipedream but not in white-ball cricket. “We have that target that one day we have the ability to win the World Cup, especially the T20 World Cup,” Khan said in an interview with the ICC last month.

“That’s the focus of everyone back home. That’s the dream of everyone, that’s the target of every player and we are capable of achieving that target. We have that belief in our skills and ourselves, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to achieve that target in the future.”

On the last day of 2018, barely 18 months after their promotion to full membership status at the International Cricket Council (ICC), Afghanistan pipped Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in a three-way race to a spot in the main group stage of the T20 World Cup. Afghanistan had stitched together a dream run the previous year—wins in all seven T20Is, including a 3-0 sweep of Bangladesh in Dehradun and two each against Ireland and Zimbabwe away from their adopted home—to finish eighth on the rankings table, five points clear of Sri Lanka and 15 above Bangladesh. For the first time since the 2010 World Cup they were not required to go through a qualifying phase, a big indication that Afghanistan cricket was heading in the right direction.

On August 20, five days after the Taliban took over Kabul without resistance, Rashid Khan walked out into the Oval with Afghanistan colours painted on his cheeks. The black, red and green slowly melted away in the London night as Trent Rockets took on Southern Brave in an eliminator of The Hundred. But Khan’s message was not lost—to him, nothing had changed. Yet everything had. Soon, it was evident their women wouldn’t be allowed to play cricket, a decision that drew a sharp reaction from Cricket Australia, which threatened to cancel the one-off Test against Afghanistan.

Things seemed to come to a head some days later when Khan resigned as T20 captain after the World Cup squad was announced because he wasn’t consulted on the team. With a new acting chairman in Azizullah Fazli, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) chose to move on. It made a few changes to the initial squad and announced Mohammad Nabi—Khan’s teammate at Sunrisers Hyderabad who played just one game in the UAE leg of IPL—as the replacement captain. A week later, reports emerged that the Taliban had banned the telecast of IPL.

RELATED STORIES

It was an uncertain phase when the cricket world didn’t know what would become of Afghanistan. For a while, there was no clarity on how BCCI would react after having played a major role in Afghanistan cricket’s evolution, be it providing them “home” grounds in Greater Noida, Dehradun or Lucknow or hosting their maiden Test in Bengaluru in 2018.

 

It’s not as bad now. The Test against Australia, to be played in Hobart from November 27-December 1, is back on track. There are reports Afghanistan may visit India next year. Though more than half the team had to wait in Qatar for their visas, they could join the support staff and their franchise superstars in time to start quarantining before entering the tournament bio-bubble in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Still, it would be an understatement to describe that Afghanistan cricket has gone through a turbulent phase in the last two months. The morale can’t be great, having last played a T20I in March (against Zimbabwe) and changing captains twice since then. At a media interaction facilitated by the ICC, Nabi admitted captaining Afghanistan can be tough but promised they wouldn’t cut down on their aggression. “We have got a challenge of a difficult buildup towards the World Cup. But we just need to stay away from making excuses,” head coach Lance Klusener said from the UAE a few days ago. “We can sit and make a thousand excuses as to why we shouldn’t perform, but I think that’s going to be my focus—that we are putting aside all that for the next three or four weeks.”

Klusener feels Afghanistan have as good a chance as any other team. But exposure could be a factor like it was in the 2019 World Cup where Afghanistan lost all nine league matches. Barring Khan, Nabi, Naveen-ul Haq and Najibullah Zadran who have experience playing in franchise leagues, most of the other players were training in Afghanistan. “One of the main challenges is we don’t have home games,” said Klusener. “Every single day has been an away game. That’s been a challenge, certainly more from an administration point of view. It’s difficult enough organising a bio-bubble in your own country, let alone trying to organise that in foreign countries. That’s always been extremely difficult.”

There is no dearth of talent though. Hazratullah Zazai is a run machine who hit 16 sixes in an unbeaten 162 off 62 deliveries against Ireland in 2019. Karim Janat, a 23-year-old all-rounder, hit 100 off 57 balls in last year’s Shpageeza Cricket League (Afghanistan’s top T20 tournament), the fastest of that edition. One of the youngest teams in the tournament, Afghanistan have also made rapid strides in fielding. “The talent in the squad of ours, in our people back home and for what they have achieved in 20-odd years of international cricket is the fact that the boys have managed to pre-qualify for this T20 World Cup,” said Klusener. “That’s just insane really. People just don’t understand what a great achievement that is. I don’t think I have ever worked with another team that has such a passion for cricket, a passion for getting better.”

Undeniable also is the game’s connect with the common Afghan man. The Shpageeza Cricket League attracted 350 players in the draft for eight teams this time. In September, nearly 4,000 spectators—all men—turned up at a trial match between Peace Defenders and Peace Heroes, featuring many members of the Afghanistan team. Armed soldiers kept vigil as Taliban and Afghanistan flags were being waved in the stands.

These indicate the awareness within Taliban that cricket needs to play a major hand to give the country a new direction. Despite hiccups, Klusener says all’s well with the new management. “The Taliban has been extremely supportive. They love cricket and have made sure that the boys get what they need and that we can get to the World Cup. I think from that point of view—the fact that they are passionate about the game is good for cricket. And then we are also as a team acutely aware of our responsibility of putting a smile on the faces of people back home.”

How their women’s cricket is handled may go a long way in influencing international opinion on Afghanistan, but it also hinges on how they fare in this T20 World Cup. Doing well in Tests is still a pipedream but not in white-ball cricket. “We have that target that one day we have the ability to win the World Cup, especially the T20 World Cup,” Khan said in an interview with the ICC last month.

“That’s the focus of everyone back home. That’s the dream of everyone, that’s the target of every player and we are capable of achieving that target. We have that belief in our skills and ourselves, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to achieve that target in the future.”

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