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Afghanistan: Rise of the new Men in Blue

Afghanistan proved their mettle by doing well in Asia Cup 2014 © AFP
Afghanistan proved their mettle by doing well in Asia Cup 2014 © AFP

Afghanistan’s maturity on the cricket field in their first major tournament is noteworthy. Abhijit Banare looks at their impressive performance in the Asia Cup 2014 and the reasons behind it.

When Nawroz Mangal comfortably caught a wild slog by Rubel Hossain at mid-wicket region, there was every reason for the Afghanistan players to run amok, shower some expletives and kick-start major celebrations. Some might have even justified such a celebration since it was a historic moment — winning for the first time against a Test playing nation. Even Bangladesh took close to 30 matches to register their first win. Instead, what we saw was the calm, cool and collected skipper Mohammad Nabi just ambling across and shaking hands with opposition batsmen and congratulating his teammates as a delighted Afghan side walked back to the pavilion.

This was Afghanistan’s first major One-Day International (ODI) tournament involving Test playing sides and going by their performance, it seems that they are fit enough to challenge the best in the world. There has been a comparison of Afghanistan’s success with that of Ireland. While they are out playing, it’s a level playing field. But off it, this team has many reasons to succeed than just enjoying the game of cricket.

The struggles off the field bind them together. In an interview to CricketCountry, coach Kabir Khan put it accurately: “The thing is that the generation that is playing with me has been through a lot of troubles and they became tough. Most of them were in refugee camps in Pakistan or other countries. And, you know what life there is in a refugee camp! It is very difficult. You have to fight for food or even water sometimes. All those difficulties have made them very tough. That is something they cannot forget, as they have done it so many times that it makes them very tough and resilient.”

Grit and determination was at full display when a the sixth wicket pair of Asghar Stanikzai and Samiullah Shenwari refused to bow down meekly and scripted a partnership to remember. Having faced adversities for a long time, success then comes as redemption for all that has gone by.

None of these are visible when they are on the field. Their conduct on the field is something even the best sides in the world need to learn from. Take the example of the match against India. Dinesh Karthik edged one from Shapoor Zadran to the wicketkeeper. There was absolutely no doubt that he was out except for Billy Bowden who nodded confidently in refusal. Imagine a Mitchell Johnson now, going towards the batsman and throwing some expletives which would be made into a headline next morning. All that Zadran did was walk up to the batsman and patted him after the over.

Much of those inspiring stories and incidents would have been buried if the results were not visible. Cricket has seen innumerable examples of forgotten heroes. But Afghanistan have managed to keep their focus intact and achieve things that really matters. They had already hogged the limelight in the World Cup qualifiers. The performances of some of the players have been excellent. Below are a few noteworthy performances:

Asghar Stanikzai showed his class against Bangladesh in Asia Cup 2014 © AFP
Asghar Stanikzai showed his class against Bangladesh in Asia Cup 2014 © AFP

Asghar Stanikzai: He did well to lead the chase against Pakistan but failed to accelerate. Against Bangladesh, he learnt his lessons and took the risk which paid off big time towards the end. In those two contrasting innings, Stanikzai proved that he is skilled enough to occupy the crease against the best bowlers and as well as capable of anchoring the innings to a good score. Many new teams who enter the international fray fail to produce a gritty batsman. In Stanikzai, they have a responsible batsman in the middle-order.

Afghanistan skipper, Mohammad Nabi was cool, calm and collected under pressure © AFP
Afghanistan skipper, Mohammad Nabi was cool, calm and collected under pressure © AFP

Mohammad Nabi: Undoubtedly a calm and cool skipper which reflects in the way the entire team conducts itself on the field. And even former great spinners would be delighted to watch the turn which he manages to produce to outfox batsmen. Having a stable leader is necessary during this phase where there’s plenty of room for growth.

The mettlesome Samiullah Shenwari © AFP
The mettlesome all-rounder Samiullah Shenwari played with guts and determination against India © AFP

Samiullah Shenwari: An all-rounder is worth in gold irrespective of which pitch he plays on. He can score runs briskly and turn up as a reliable leg-spinner. Shenwari’s match-winning innings followed by a matured fifty displayed his abilities. He consistently managed to sneak a single on the last ball while batting with the tail-enders against India and had the skill to stay at the crease under pressure.

The lanky pacer Shapoor Zadran bowled with zest and enthusiasm in Asia Cup 2014 © AFP
The lanky pacer Shapoor Zadran bowled with zest and enthusiasm in Asia Cup 2014 © AFP

Shappor Zadran: It was heartening to see the sultan of swing Wasim Akram giving tips to the lanky left-armer, Shapoor Zadran before the match against India. He managed to get breakthroughs and more significantly, troubled the batsmen before getting their wickets. Nothing fuels the confidence of a bowler more than seeing the batsmen struggling against him and eventually getting his wicket.

The century opening stand between Shikhar Dhawan and Ajinkya Rahane was the first ever century stand against Afghanistan for any wicket. It’s such an exceptional stat the highlights the success of the bowlers.

Mohammad Shahzad, Nawroz Mangal have been there around for a long time now and the other players too are growing in confidence. One of the heartening stories is that the performance in Asia Cup was preceded by a strong show in the ICC Under-19 World Cup 2014. It clearly indicates that a strong base is being built to shepherd the youngsters and move ahead. With nothing to lose, Afghanistan cricket is galloping ahead without much burden.

As the coach put it, “Now, the administration side is much better. The office is running smoothly, the players are getting paid, no issues with money or salary; everything is smooth. Lot of development work is going on.” But things change when success makes regular visits. The joy turns into expectations, and the success is cashed in by those more than just cricketers. These players are already household names in their country. As time passes by, one can just hope expectations doesn’t drag them back in their endeavour to become a fine side.

(Abhijit Banare is a reporter at CricketCountry. He is an avid quizzer and loves to analyse and dig out interesting facts which allows him to learn something new every day. Apart from cricket he also likes to keep a sharp eye on Indian politics, and can be followed on Twitter and blog)

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