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Afghanistan qualified for the quarter-final of the ICC Under-19 World Cup 2014 with a good performance in the group stage, which included a shock victory over Australia. Nishad Pai Vaidya caught up with some of the members of this inspired unit as they prepared for their quarter-final encounter against South Africa at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.
There is an air of optimism in the Afghanistan ranks at the ICC Under-19 World Cup 2014. Having stunned one of the tournament favourites, Australia, in the group stages, Afghanistan surged ahead to make it through to the quarter-final of the tournament. As they train at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium, gearing up for their next challenge, they cheer each other up with the occasional “Shabash!” This team looks a happy unit and one that is eying greater things at the Under-19 World Cup. “It was a big victory to beat them first time. This is the first time we have gone through to the second round in Under-19 World Cup. When you beat teams like Australia, confidence levels will be high,” said Mohammad Mujtaba, Afghanistan’s star at the tournament so far.
We all have been inspired, in awe, of Afghanistan’s meteoric rise in world cricket. Most of the members of the senior side started playing in refugee camps and from the smaller divisions of the World Cricket League (WCL), they have now broken through to the ICC World T20 thrice, the World Cup and the Asia Cup. All that happened in a matter of a few years and is a journey that inspires this Under-19 team. Ask Dawlat Ahmadzai, the coach of the Under-19 team! Ahmadzai was a part of the senior side for years, one that charted a spectacular rise. He also featured in the ICC World T20 2010. “That journey was fantastic. We did a lot of hard work and won some great matches. All that you are seeing now is because of that journey,” said Ahmadzai, knowing what it was to go through all those struggle to reach the top.
There is another link in this Under-19 team with that glorious journey that has set a platform for Afghanistan. Skipper Nasir Jamal’s elder brother Raees Ahmadzai was also a member of that inspirational side and played in the ICC World T20 2010. Nasir says, “When my brother played for the national team, I felt good and wished to do the same. Whenever he would come home, he would play with me. He helped me a lot and he is my cricketing inspiration.” Having watched his brother from close quarters, Nasir knows the difficulties that side faced to make its way to the top.
“They have taken Afghanistan cricket ahead. They went through difficulties and did not have the facilities, but they worked hard and because of that they surged ahead. Ahmadzai is a very good coach who has worked hard with us in the camp for months,” said Nasir. While most members of the senior side didn’t have facilities and their grind was much harder, the next generation feels blessed to have numerous facilities. It was due to the growing cricketing infrastructure in their country that they could practice there and not depend on overseas venues.
“Out of the six month camp, we practiced for five months in Afghanistan. Three or four stadiums have been constructed already. Every year, there are tournaments being held there. The good thing is that we can play cricket in any season there as the weather is very good,” said Nasir. Who would have thought it was possible? And imagine the previous generation starting from scratch in refugee camps! Nasir says, “We are very grateful to the cricket board for the various facilities. There is also an indoor academy. Coaches are also coming from overseas to work with youngsters.”
Mujtaba started his cricket as a youngster in Kabul. “I started in my school days. As a child, I started playing tennis-ball cricket. After that I started club cricket. This was in Kabul, Afghanistan and I started when I was in fifth,” he says. All this shows that cricket is indeed growing rapidly in Afghanistan and is more than a sport. Ahmadzai believes, “Everyone follows cricket in Afghanistan. Every child and even elders think about cricket. So, it means a lot for Afghanistan and its people.”
But coming into this tournament, not many would have given Afghanistan a chance of beating a big side, let alone get through to the quarter-final. They were brimming with confidence though, as they had beaten Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the past. Ahmadzai keeps a watchful eye over his boys during training and says, “This team is a very talented one. I hope they will make it to the national team very soon. They have won matches against Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and now Australia. So, they are looking good. They are fit and are fielding very well.”
Ahmadzai believes this victory means a lot to the Afghan people back home and says that their target was to beat a full member side. Nasir concurs with his coach, “Yes, people were very happy in Afghanistan. We were also very happy because Australia is one of the best teams going around. We had beaten a few teams earlier and our target was to beat Australia.”
And, there is Mujtaba, the opener with scores of 47, 75 and 50 in the tournament so far. That knock of 75 came against Australia and helped to setup a base for the victory. Years from now, people may still remember this victory, as yet another milestone in a beautiful story. “It feels good when you are playing well and getting awards and especially when you win for your country. I will try to keep it up going for my country,” says Mujtaba.
Ultimately, their goals are higher and this is just the beginning. With their senior team preparing for the Asia Cup and the ICC World T20 2014, the focus is still on these youngsters in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As they head to complete their warm-ups and resume practice, Ahmadzai and Mujtaba send a message to all the fans back home: “The message is — pray for us!”
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