T20 World Cup: Giant-killers Afghanistan’s remarkable run faces tough test in Super Eights

New Delhi, June 20 (IANS) On Wednesday, Raees Ahmadzai, Afghanistan’s assistant coach, in their captivating 2023 Men’s ODI World Cup campaign, posted a picture that was outside the trend of throwback Thursdays on Instagram. In that picture from Afghanistan’s first Men’s T20 World Cup campaign in 2010, Ahmadzai can be seen standing for the national anthem alongside his teammates, including Mohammed Nabi. He captioned it as, ’01 May 2010 vs India. 20 June 2024 vs India. After 14 years in the West Indies against India. Time for something very special boys’.

The 2010 Men’s T20 World Cup in the West Indies was the year when Afghanistan, a team made up of half of the players born and brought up in refugee camps and who eventually took up learning about the sport there, made their debut in the event.

Their first game in the T20 World Cup was against India at St Lucia, where they showed glimpses of being a force to reckon with, despite losing to the MS Dhoni-led side. Now, 14 years later, Afghanistan are appearing for the first time in the tournament’s knockout stage, adding yet another chapter to their remarkable story and capturing the attention of fans worldwide.

However, this is where the Rashid Khan-led side, ranked tenth in the world, will encounter their most challenging trial — going up against top-ranked India, who are heavily favoured to claim the trophy.

Since the start of the 2024 Men’s T20 World Cup, there has been a different flair with Afghanistan. They have looked like a team operating like a top-tier side – openers getting big runs, pacers (Fazalhaq Farooqi is the top wicket-taker with 12 scalps) and spinners clicking like anything.

“If you look at them, earlier they would rely on a couple of bowlers to win their matches. But since last year’s ODI World Cup, the batters have started winning them the matches while chasing big totals, and that’s a big, big change in this team.”

“Earlier, they would rely only on the bowlers to win matches for them, like Rashid Khan, Nabi, Mujeeb, and other fast bowlers. But now if you see from Gurbaz, Ibrahim to Omarzai, and Noor Ahmad, anybody can win matches for them, which is a big change. Also, the way Farooqi has been bowling, he’s now the highest wicket-taker for them right now, is also a big change,” said Umesh Patwal, the former Afghanistan batting coach, in an exclusive conversation with IANS from Mumbai.

Few gave them a chance to qualify for Super Eights from Group C, regarded as the group of death. But the takedown of New Zealand with utter domination and coasting past Uganda and Namibia was enough for Afghanistan to break their ‘not going beyond first round’ hoodoo, though West Indies handed them a thrashing.

It also helps that many in the Afghanistan team are the most sought-after players in T20 leagues like the IPL, CPL, BBL, and SA20 amongst others, which gives them the chance to rub shoulders with the best in the business and evolve their skills, decision-making powers and ability to deal with pressure in crunch situations.

“You look at the confidence and how they’re happy as they don’t look like a new team. Like earlier many would say they are a rookie team and they don’t have the experience of playing against big teams. Now I think people won’t talk that way because it’s all about the outcome.”

“Once you start winning good matches, then nobody talks about whether you are a newcomer, rookie, and all those things. Also, it’s all about having more experience playing around the world in the T20 leagues. Most of them are playing in IPL as well. So the kind of exposure which helps in handling the pressure and all these things, it makes the cricket much easier for them to handle the situations which have never happened earlier,” added Patwal.

Besides their resilient mindset, insatiable thirst for knowledge about the sport, and unwavering self-assurance in their abilities, Afghanistan’s dedicated domestic cricket infrastructure, comprising of around 16-17 stadiums, has played a crucial role in their achievements.

“They were always keen on making a point in the world as a cricket team. Though they didn’t have big advantages, they were not sore losers and did not like to lose the games. That’s how they always play their cricket – for them, winning is what matters. Whether you look at the culture and look at the way they have been brought up, losing is not accepted well there.”

“That same culture and upbringing has actually helped them a lot. Despite coming from very difficult terrain and difficult stuff happening around politics and government there, their culture has been more about winning. That has really helped the team to grow from when I first met them in 2010.”

“Then the whole team came to Pune next year, 2011. After that, I think it’s just the attitude that has really impressed me. I have been to Kabul a few times. Looking at the way they were practicing, nothing was there.”

“But there was no fear or criticism that we don’t have this, neither ground nor the facilities. They were not ever worried about the facilities, as they just wanted to learn and get better. It’s because they wanted to beat the best teams, and that has really changed their whole cricketing journey,” elaborated Patwal.

Rashid Khan’s captaincy exemplifies Afghanistan’s winning spirit in the World Cup, according to Patwal. “Afghanistan having Rashid Khan as the leader is huge, as he understands the game so well. We were in the Shpageeza Cricket League, where he was the captain and I was the head coach. We won the league in 2018 when he was just 19, despite the blast happening outside the stadium.”

“So you can understand he has a habit of winning. He’s done amazing things at an early age. Now with all the facilities he has, looking at Trotty (Jonathan Trott), the coach from England, and the way the batters are batting, he will be very keen to see Afghanistan making some history.”

Giving all-rounder and former skipper Gulbadin Naib role clarity as a number three batter has been crucial, as observed by Patwal. This was evident when Naib delivered under pressure, scoring an unbeaten 49 in a nerve-wracking chase against Papua New Guinea.

“Gulbadin has always been shuffling and is now playing in the top order. He was juggling all these years, but now, they have used him much in the top order. Gulbadin used to be a bowler when I started with him. Then he became an all-rounder, the way he batted against PNG, they preferably want him to bat higher and then be like a guy who can really hit sixes and fours. They want somebody who can create momentum when chasing or trying to score runs.”

Having played all of their World Cup matches in the Caribbean, Afghanistan have a fair understanding of the conditions. In last year’s ODI World Cup, they had former India batter Ajay Jadeja as the mentor, who worked wonders in punching above their weight and beating teams like defending champions England, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.

Afghanistan’s decision to bring in Dwayne Bravo as a bowling consultant for this World Cup has clearly boosted their performances too. “The addition of Bravo has been the biggest advantage for Afghanistan. The kind of environment Bravo brings into the dressing room and the experience of playing on those pitches and grounds, nobody better than Bravo.”

“Plus, he’s won so many franchise T20 leagues, and also brings in that kind of culture and thought process, where you know how to win matches or what can be the doubts which can come into your mind. So this has really helped the batters and even the bowlers. Basically, it’s a very big added advantage for Afghanistan to learn from somebody who can be so helpful in these conditions,” stated Patwal.

Since 2023, Afghanistan’s performance in both batting and bowling has shown significant improvement. India will be well aware that they cannot underestimate Afghanistan, particularly in a format where surprises can happen on any day.

Clearly, they will hope for their remarkable run to extend in Super Eights against formidable opponents like India, Bangladesh, and Australia. But Afghanistan’s journey from playing in Division Five to being at the T20 World Cup knockouts is solid proof of the endless possibilities present in life and cricket.

–IANS

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