Cricket World Cup 2019: Where is the fight, Afghanistan?

Something odd transpired for the England-Afghanistan game on Tuesday. Old Trafford was only about 70 per cent full match – a World Cup match for the hosts. A day prior, nearly 1000 tickets were still up for grabs, something unheard of this summer.

Imagine, this World Cup being hosted in the sub-continent. If India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh were playing their home games in a tournament of this proportion, they would be guaranteed sell-outs. In a way, it underlines the general English public’s apathy towards this World Cup. High-priced tickets, no free-to-air television, and no outreach to the masses – we are not even talking about rain and abandonments yet.

So much so, a fan attending Tuesday’s game in Manchester told this writer that he didn’t know the result of the mega India-Pakistan clash, which took place at the same ground 48 hours prior. Empty stands at an EnglandAfghanistan World Cup clash, therefore, further underlined this apathy – a lowly opposition simply doesn’t matter. It is precisely why this tournament was reduced to ten teams. ALSO READ: Afghan chutzpah entertains and asks a few tough questions

This is an important statement. Why, because Afghanistan’s arrival in England was seen as the leading light against an unfair ruling. They were here not playing for just their own country, but also for the likes of Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe, Nepal, Oman and others. All of whom didn’t get a fair shot at playing in a World Cup, particularly the former two teams, for whom this would have been a home tournament on a grander scale. ALSO READ: Inspired by Afghanistan, East Timor’s cricket culture aims high

When Afghanistan played Australia in their first game, they fought hard. The defending champions were in cruise mode from the beginning at Bristol, but the Afghans simply didn’t throw in the towel. Two weeks is a long time though – it has been a downhill battle ever since. Afghanistan were here to spring a surprise; none have transpired so far. Perhaps the biggest on-field blow came when they messed up the chase against Sri Lanka at Cardiff. This team hasn’t looked the same ever since.

‘On-field’ is an important pointer herein. Unlike Afghanistan teams of the past, this squad has been split wide open by constant controversies. It started with the captaincy change before the tournament even began. Senior players aren’t fine with Gulbadin Naib’s captaincy, and it is very much visible when the skipper himself refuses to indulge in this discussion.

Then, there was the episode with Mohammad Shahzad. No one really knows what really happened there, apart from the fact that the keeper-batsman claimed he was sent home for no reason. Clearly he was not unfit – if fitness is a parameter for someone as bulky as him, at all. Could it be his batting approach? Always attacking, not looking at what the team needs and getting out cheaply as a result? Then, there is the needless argument over their team selection – what even happened in the previous game against South Africa, when they completely abandoned a spin-first approach.

Asghar Afghan, former skipper, also came into the playing eleven for his first game of the tournament – was it pressure from the team seniors? Against England then, they played extra spinners, hoping for a spin-friendly track, and thus only one pacer. Naib himself opened the innings.

Reports have now come up suggesting that a bunch of these Afghanistan players were embroiled in a public incident at a Manchester restaurant one night before this game.

It reflects poorly on how tightly knit this unit has been. Their core of 8-10 senior players grew up together, fought atrocities and hardships to play this sport, and rose through the ranks together. Their fight – against everything – was the one characteristic that stood apart for them. Cricket will catch on, they said. Watch us play, and surprise everyone, they said.

Tuesday’s performance was a surprise indeed, for the fight had gone out of this Afghanistan side. Sure, they were up against it when playing the tournament favourites and the pitch turned out to be a batting beauty. That England nearly crossed 400 despite their slowest powerplay start of the tournament (46-1 in 10 overs) was down to Eoin Morgan’s awe-inducing hitting prowess.

That powerplay score doesn’t tell the whole story though. Missing Jason Roy, the English openers played for time and got set with a platform from which to strike on. For the first 20 overs, the English batsmen stroked through at 5/over. It was more a calculative ploy than a proper bowling performance from the Afghans.

They had bowled within themselves and yet it wasn’t good enough. What let them down was their efforts in the field – easy singles not cut off, no effort to cut the quick boundary and a lack of effort to throw themselves around, never mind even a try to catch the aerial half chance. It was almost as if they were not willing to field, not willing to fight for themselves or their kin.

It was not the Afghanistan team we have come to know, and love.