Afghanistan registered their 1st World Cup win against Scotland in 2015 World Cup © AFP and Getty Images
Afghanistan registered their first World Cup win against Scotland in 2015 World Cup © AFP and Getty Images

Afghanistan’s fairytale rise from the ashes continued through the second decade of the new millennium. If qualifying for the 2015 World Cup was not enough, they created further history by registering their first win in the tournament, against Scotland, on February 26, 2015. Abhishek Mukherjee recollects a momentous day in the history of a war-torn nation.

Before we delve into recent details, let us discuss one Reverend George Gleig, remembered most as a military writer. Let us quote from his Sale’s Brigade in Afghanistan, with an account of the seizure and defence of Jellalabad, a trove of invaluable information about Afghanistan around the First Anglo-Afghan War.

Gleig wrote: “Wherever Englishmen go, they sooner or later introduce among the people whom they visit a taste for manly sports. Horse-racing and cricket were both got up in the vicinity of Cabul; and in both the chiefs and the people soon learned to take a lively interest.”

Note: The ‘Sale’ mentioned in the title of Gleig’s book is Sir Robert Henry Sale, who commanded the Jalalabad Garrison during the war. Also note the spellings of Kabul and Jalalabad.

As it often happened in other countries, cricket was introduced to Afghanistan by the British. The British built a racetrack, set up theatres, and skated on the ice (Gleig mentioned one-inch-thick ice in the winter of 1839). On the other hand, the British tried to take to cock-fights, quail-fights, buzkashi, and Afghan wrestling, which often involved gambling than not.

But cricket never became popular in Afghanistan. Gleig explained why: “The game of cricket was not, however, so congenial to the taste of the Afghans. Being great gamblers in their own way, they looked on with astonishment at the bowling, batting, and fagging out of the English players; but it does not appear that they were ever tempted to lay aside their flowing robes and huge turbans and enter the field as competitors.”

Cricket died out in Afghanistan. The weather was not conducive. The terrain was probably too rugged and the weather too harsh, but more than anything, the Afghans probably did not take to the idea of remaining confined to a sport that did not involve much action. Remember, in 1839, cricket almost invariably involved under-arm bowling.

The Second Anglo-Afghan War, waged about four decades later, brought more Englishmen with it. Cricket resumed as a result. By this time cricket had undergone monumental changes back home: overarm bowling had been legalised; WG Grace had set benchmarks, both in record books and in stature, of the level no cricketer had attained before; and cricket of the highest order invariably meant international cricket. Though they were not aware at that point of time, England and Australia had already played the first Test ever.

It is believed that the Afghans picked up the sport sometime in the 1990s. Cricket became immensely popular among Afghan refugees in Pakistan. In fact, Afghan Cricket Federation (ACF) was formed in Pakistan, back in 1995.

Unsurprisingly, the Taliban were resistant at first towards the idea of cricket. Surprisingly, that changed soon. Cricket was the only sport allowed by the Taliban (even buzkashi — currently Afghanistan’s national game — was banned). In January 2000 they even asked ACF to write to PCB for assistance: the Taliban actually wanted Afghanistan to become an ICC Affiliate.

Had that not happened, this article would not have been written; and the cricket would certainly have been poorer.

Tim Wigmore explained the reasoning on Scroll: “In cricket the Taliban saw a sport that could both promote the regime at home and gain some acceptance abroad. The Taliban recognised cricket as a sport that could fit easily with a hard-line Islamic state. After all, cricket was Pakistan’s national sport, and Pakistan was one of only three states to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government.”

By 2001 Afghanistan were an ICC Affiliate. Two years later they became an ACC member. By this time the Afghanistan national side was playing as a team in Pakistan domestic cricket. They were joint champions of ACC T20 Cup 2007. They won the ICC Intercontinental Cup in 2010.

Afghanistan missed out on a berth in World Cup 2011, but were granted ODI status. They played the World T20, in 2010, 2012, 2014, and later, in 2016. In 2013 they became an ICC Associate nation.

And then, in 2015, they showed up Down Under for the World Cup.

The Bangladesh match

Hamid Hassan, with his painted face and enormous shoulders, colourful head-band and hostile pace, followed by cartwheel-laden celebrations, was the ideal man to lead the pack. He was paired with Shapoor Zadran, a man of enormous frame and a run-up to match any in international cricket. Backing them were medium-pacers Aftab Alam and Mirwais Ashraf, both canny and accurate. And of course, there were the off-breaks of captain Mohammad Nabi, the man who would emerge as Afghanistan’s greatest cricketer.

Bangladesh were 119 for 4 in the 30th over. They eventually got 267, but Afghanistan bowled them out. Two men — Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim — got over half the team runs. From 136 for 5 Afghanistan collapsed to 162. Afghanistan played exciting, intense cricket, but they were outplayed by the experienced Bangladeshis.

They could have done better, for they had beaten Bangladesh at Fatullah less than a year before the match in the 2014 Asia Cup.

Mohammad Nabi celebrates after claiming final wicket of Rubel Hossain of Bangladesh in 2014 Asia Cup © AFP
Mohammad Nabi celebrates after claiming final wicket of Rubel Hossain of Bangladesh in 2014 Asia Cup © AFP

The Sri Lankan jolt

Afghanistan got 232 against Sri Lanka in the cold weather of Dunedin that they were more familiar to than the Lankans. Their top eight all reached double-figures, but Asghar Stanikzai was the only one to get past fifty.

Then came the jolts. Lahiru Thirimanne was trapped leg-before first ball by Dawlat Zadran. Kumar Sangakkara got a run off the last ball, and another off the first of Shapoor’s over. Tillakaratne Dilshan edged the next ball to the eager gloves of Afsar Zazai.

Composite of Hamid Hassan's cartwheel celebration after taking the wicket Kumar Sangakkara © Getty Images
Composite of Hamid Hassan’s cartwheel celebration after taking the wicket Kumar Sangakkara © Getty Images

2 for 2 in 8 balls, read the score. Both openers had fallen for golden ducks. The wicket was all Shapoor needed to forget the pain he had incurred while injuring a knee while batting.

Sangakkara survived when Najibullah Zadran missed an easy run out, but not for long: Hamid, coming on first change, got one move into him at significant pace; the ball made its way through the great man’s defence.

The score read 17 for 3. When Dimuth Karunaratne edged Hamid to slip, Sri Lanka were 51 for 4. Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews brought their experience into the match, Mahela scoring exactly 100 and Mathews 44. But Afghanistan refused to give up: Nabi ran out Mathews with a direct hit, while Mahela guided one to deep third-man — all in the space of 5 balls.

At this stage Sri Lanka needed 55 from 52 balls. They had 4 wickets in hand. Padded up was Rangana Herath, at best competent with bat. It was anybody’s game. However, Jeevan Mendis set up fort as Thisara Perera blasted out the Afghan bowlers: Sri Lanka won with 10 balls to spare.

D-day

Scotland boasted of Josh Davey, a man who had broken through to Middlesex in his teens. In his fourth ODI he had felled Afghanistan single-handedly, taking 5 for 9 to rout them for 120. Davey had taken 7 wickets from the first 2 matches. He would finish the tournament with 15 wickets at 20.73.

There was also Richie Berrington, whose brutal batting (a 56-ball 100) had given Scotland their first win over a Test-playing nation; the persistent Majid Haq, whose off-breaks were impossible to score off; Iain Wardlaw, the Yorkshireman with the canny habit of taking wickets every now and then; and at the helm of everything, captain Preston Mommsen, a perpetually serene presence in the line-up.

More importantly, just like Afghanistan, Scotland were also looking for their first win. Their previous assignments, in 1999 and 2007, had been fruitless. Bangladesh and Netherlands had robbed them of their opportunities.

This was their best option.

A roar went up in the ground when Mommsen and Nabi walked out to toss. While the Afghans had won hearts with their exciting, enthusiastic brand, the Scottish cricket team had not earned an enemy since they had stepped out on the biggest arena. And for the historically inclined, Scotland had also introduced the most singularly alluring concept of tea-intervals during cricket matches.

Nabi put Scotland in. In his first over — the second of the match — Dawlat pitched one on leg. Kyle Coetzer reached out in vain and watched helplessly as the ball moved across the bat and barely missed the stumps. Four balls later Calum McLeod hit Dawlat straight to point.

Coetzer launched into Hamid as soon as Nabi got him on, taking him for consecutive boundaries. Hamid continued, unperturbed, bowling in the corridor, waiting patiently to get one past the bat. It worked when Hamish Gardiner tried to flick him across the line and was trapped in front by Hamid. Two balls later, Dawlat found Coetzer rooted at the crease and cleaned him up. 40 for 3.

The Afghan attack, unfortunately, lost steam once the three main pacers were taken out of attack one by one. Gulbadin Naib, a remarkable all-rounder on his day, bowled either too full or too short, and both Mommsen and Matt Machan went after him.

They added 50 in quick time before Machan, for some reason, went for a wild swipe and lost his wicket. Naib had his revenge, getting Mommsen to edge one to Zazai. Matthew Cross batted sensibly before he tried to guide Shapoor towards third-man: Zazai dived full-length to come up with a spectacular catch. Soon afterwards, Davey hit Shapoor straight to mid-off, while Dawlat returned to have Berrington caught-behind.

After 37 overs, the score read 144 for 8. Even 160 looked far, far away.

The Haq-and-Evans show

Alasdair Evans walked out. While Scotland No. 10s are not exactly Don Bradman, five months before the match in question Evans had scored a crucial 22 against Ireland. He had helped Berrington put on 48 — at that point a ninth-wicket record stand for Scotland.

In other words, he could bat a bit. Majid, of course, had excellent credentials: he had three fifties for Scotland, all of them as opener. With Evans at the other end, Majid grew in confidence. He started by placing Hamid to the point fence. Evans responded with a beautiful cover-drive. They were still far, far away from batting out fifty overs, but Majid and Evans looked confident.

Then something outrageous happened: Dawlat got one to kick off a length; Majid adjusted well, loosening his grip the moment just before the impact; the bat remained in his hand — but it split in two.

Majid hit Shapoor for two boundaries in three balls in the 48th over. Berrington and Evans’s record of 48 was bettered. Two balls later Evans biffed Naib over mid-off for four: it was the first time Scotland reached 200 in the World Cup.

The Scotland innings went to the last ball of the innings, though Shapoor managed to remove both men: Majid fell in the first ball of the last over, thick-edging to point, while Evans, going for the almighty slog off the last ball, played straight to cover.

Shapoor Zadran's spell of 4 for 38 helped Afghanistan restricting Scotland for 210 © Getty Images
Shapoor Zadran’s spell of 4 for 38 helped Afghanistan restricting Scotland for 210 © Getty Images

Afghanistan had to chase 211, probably fifty more than what they should have anticipated.

Ahmadi goes bonkers

Afghanistan’s exposure to the highest level had been limited till then, but even at that point Javed Ahmadi was a much-feared hitter of the ball — a role that would later go to Mohammad Shahzad. The previous July he had smashed a 57-ball 56 against Zimbabwe; in September there was a 45-ball 67; and in consecutive innings in January he had got 74 in 81 and 81 in 89.

Even in the last match, against Sri Lanka, he had smashed consecutive boundaries off Lasith Malinga, then off Suranga Lakmal, before throwing it all away for a 23-ball 24.

Here, against Scotland, with Wardlaw and Davey making the ball move around in Dunedin, Ahmadi decided to counterattack. He stepped out to meet the ball before it could move, smashing it first through cover, then straight, for fours; the pressure fell back on Davey, who lost his rhythm and bowled short. Ahmadi duly cut him for four more. Then he went after Wardlaw, lofting him over cover.

But Scotland were not going to concede so easily. Mommsen almost pulled off a stunner when Nawroz Mangal, the grand old man of Afghan cricket, tried to guide one to third man. He got Evans early, who found more swing than the new-ball bowlers, and beat the bat more often. Wardlaw came back hard, bouncing at Ahmadi.

But once again Afghanistan took control. Once again Ahmadi stepped out, this time lofting over mid-wicket. When Wardlaw held one back next ball, Ahmadi calmly pulled him to the fence.

The score read 40 without loss after 7 overs. Ahmadi had got 32 of these.

The seesaw continued when Evans bowled short. The ball hurried on to Ahmadi, who went for the pull anyway. Gardiner appeared out of nowhere, getting a hand to it: had he held on to it, it would have been an astonishing catch.

The batsmen had crossed over. Evans pitched up the next ball. Nawroz, who had been groping around for most of his innings, did not move his feet; the ball crashed on to the stumps.

Stanikzai blocked the next ball, cover-drove the one after for four, and edged the one after that to Cross behind the stumps. Out of nowhere Afghanistan had been reduced to 46 for 2.

But Ahmadi continued, unperturbed, as Samiullah Shenwari eased into the proceedings, pulling Davey to the mid-wicket fence. Davey, refusing to buckle down, beat him with a peach.

Mommsen got Haq to stem the flow of runs. A few quiet overs later, Ahmadi upper-cut (glided, actually) Wardlaw over the slips for four, and followed it with a single to complete a 48-ball fifty.

Afghanistan needed a mere 126 from 192 balls with 8 wickets in hand. They were cruising.

Scots come to party

And then a string snapped. Ahmadi, going for one hit too many, skied one and was caught. Surely that was not going to trigger a collapse, right?

Wrong.

The Scotsmen had found the opening they needed. Davey trapped Nabi leg-before next over. Zazai fell leg-before to Berrington for a golden duck. Najibullah, attempting a pull, edged Berrington to slip.

The peach came from Davey, who unleashed a screaming bouncer. All Naib could do was defend his face. The ball lobbed to gully. Afghanistan had lost 5 wickets for 12 runs in 34 balls.

Davey and Berrington had not merely got wickets. They had pushed Afghanistan to 97 for 7, almost to the point of no return.

Sami takes charge

Shenwari was, of course, watching all this. Back in 2010 he had scored 82 to mastermind a 1-wicket win over Kenya. His 69-ball 81 made him one of the heroes of Afghanistan’s 2014 Asia Cup win over Bangladesh. On that occasion he had helped Afghanistan recover from 90 for 5 to 254 for 6. Four days later he had come out at 83 for 6, scored 50, and helped Afghanistan reach 159 against India.

In the World Cup, too, he had got 42 against Bangladesh and 38 against Sri Lanka. He was in form. All he needed was support at the other end. Unfortunately, Dawlat, Shapoor, and Hamid — quality fast bowlers, all — were not exactly renowned for their  batting.

Shenwari’s 24 had come off 65 balls. True, it was not the fastest of innings, but at that stage run rate was not the first thing on Afghanistan’s mind. They needed 114 from 158 balls.

Runs came in a trickle. Shenwari did not protect Dawlat from strike. They ran their ones and twos. The target came down slowly, but it came down nevertheless.

Shenwari muscled out two boundaries off Wardlaw in the 31st over. He straight-drove Berrington for four, but Berrington had the last laugh: going for a needless wild slog, Dawlat merely holed out to cover.

Hamid took his time to settle down. Three cheap overs went by. Afghanistan needed 74 from 72 balls.

Shenwari knew he had to take risks, albeit temporarily. He picked up Davey’s slower delivery and lofted him into the stands past mid-wicket, and cut the next ball for four. That over went for eleven.

But the balance shifted again — not for the last time in the match. Just when it seemed Afghanistan had managed to have a grip on the asking rate, Davey and Evans bowled two excellent overs, conceding a run each.

Afghanistan needed 56 from 48 balls.

Shenwari had no option. Mommsen recalled Majid. Shenwari tried to get a boundary but failed, once, twice, thrice, four times… before lofting the fifth ball into the stands; but Majid came back, cramping Shenwari for room. The six was all Shenwari could manage off that over.

Hamid found a four past square-leg to keep Afghanistan in the hunt. Wardlaw’s over went for 7. They needed 43 from 36 — but more crucially, they had only two wickets in hand.

Samiullah Shenwari's knock was one of all time best in World Cup history © AFP
Samiullah Shenwari’s knock was one of all-time best in World Cup history © AFP

Then Shenwari survived. Hamid turned one towards fine-leg, and Shenwari called and ran — before changing his mind. The ball even returned to Majid on time, but a nervous Majid could not break the stumps.

And when Shenwari got a single off the last ball, he bumped into Majid; they hugged, and the hug lingered till Dunedin broke into a spontaneous, uninhibited applause.

But more crucially, Majid conceded 2 and Wardlaw 3: Afghanistan had to score 38 off the last 4 overs.

That 47th over

Majid had conceded 26 off his first 9 overs. Of these, he had bowled 37 balls to Shenwari and had given away a mere 18. He had tossed them up. Shenwari had reached out for the ball but had fallen short. He had found it difficult to time against Majid.

But Shenwari knew that he could not leave it till the next over. Despite the fact that he had struggled against Majid he had to take him on.

So he lofted the first ball over mid-wicket, into the stands, sending men clad in blue jerseys — in the pavilion as well as in the stands — into a state of frenzy. 32 from 23.

Now Shenwari tried to sweep and missed, but Majid had bowled outside leg. The wide brought it down to 31 from 23.

Majid fired down leg, trying to cramp Shenwari for room, but Shenwari decided to go for it anyway. He did not middle it, but it did not matter, for his brute force was enough to send it sailing over the ropes at square-leg. 25 from 22.

Majid came back strongly with a perfect yorker. All Shenwari could do was to survive. 25 from 21.

Majid tried an encore. Shenwari read the flight early and went with the momentum and slumped to his knees, watching the ball soar over square-leg. Afghanistan needed 19 from 20, which meant that they the target had finally caught up with the balls left.

There was a little Majid could do in front of some carnage. To his credit, he did not err in line. Shenwari could have opted to push it down the ground for a single. Instead, he decided to clear the mid-wicket fence — and failed. Davey kept his calm, not letting the pressure get to him. It was an easy catch in the end.

There was a minor confusion when the umpires checked how many fielders Mommsen had outside the circle; then they ruled Shenwari out.

Shenwari walked back for 96, four short of what would have been the most deserving hundred in the tournament. He had faced 146 balls, the last 33 of which had fetched 46 runs.

The pair had added 60 in 71 balls. For the first time in history had both ninth-wicket stands in a match added sixty.

And in what turned out to be the biggest anticlimax of the match, Shapoor blocked the last ball. They now needed 19 from 18 balls.

Those insane last moments

Majid had bowled out, as had Davey. Three bowlers had an over each. Mommsen decided to give Evans the 48th over.

Hamid and Shapoor had to win this on their own — with bat, certainly not their strong suit. They gathered together in the Afghan dressing-room, watching with bated breath. Even Nabi — calm, composed Nabi — the man who had led his side through a fantastic journey, stood tense, breaking the silence to cheer for every run.

They got their runs. Hamid and Shapoor found crucial gaps. Evans bowled a wide. The over went for 5. Afghanistan’s target had come down to 14 from 12 balls.

Mommsen now had to choose between Berrington and Wardlaw. While Wardlaw was the better bowler, Berrington was more experienced; more importantly, Berrington had already taken 4 wickets in the match.

So it was Berrington. Shapoor calmly got a single to square-leg. Hamid responded, guiding one to third-man. Shapoor pushed one past point. Berrington pulled things back a bit with a dot, but they scampered a leg-bye off the next ball. And Berrington undid his good work by bowling a wide down leg.

They needed 9 from 7 balls. The wide had given them that extra ball. Berrington ran in for the last time in the match. He backed himself to bowl a slower delivery, but the ball was a tad short than what it should have been. Shapoor waited for an eternity before placing it off the back-foot to the right of square-leg — and found himself hugged by Hamid.

The boundary had brought the target to 5 from 6 balls.

More madness… then bliss

It was over to Wardlaw now: who better to handle pressure than a Yorkshireman?

Mommsen got the extra man inside the ring. Wardlaw got his yorker, but Hamid somehow got an outside edge — and they ran as the ball rolled towards deep third-man. 4 from 5.

With the No. 11 batsman on strike, Wardlaw risked the slower delivery. Shapoor put bat to ball and did a Klusener-Donald, setting off where was barely half a run before Hamid sent him back. Meanwhile, Machan swooped down and threw the ball — Shapoor was still short — but Machan’s direct throw missed the stumps.

Shapoor lived to tell the tale. He had injured his left hand, but it was not something a physiotherapist could not heal. There was still a match to be won. Afghanistan needed 4 from 4 balls.

Wardlaw attempted the yorker again. Shapoor, determined to get the runs in one go instead of pushing for singles, turned it towards fine-leg and kept running, with an eye on the ball, watching it get closer and closer to the boundary, the spectators cheering on…

Shapoor Zadran went crazy after hitting the winning boundary, while Hamid Hassan tries to catch him © AFP
Shapoor Zadran went crazy after hitting the winning boundary, while Hamid Hassan tries to catch him © AFP

The moment Shapoor saw the ball cross the ropes he ran in ecstasy, finally sinking on to his knees, his arms outstretched. Hamid punched the air in joy as he ran to his partner, followed by an entire ocean of blue. They were led by Shenwari, who engulfed Shapoor in a bear-hug, then Nabi, then others…

And they cheered back home, in Kabul and Kandahar and Herat and Jalalabad, celebrating like there were no tomorrow. Flags were waved, people danced on the streets — and, most spectacularly, they fired the AK-47s in the air in jubilation. While the six injuries in Jalalabad were avoidable, it could not be denied that the guns had finally found a better use.

Afghan cricket fans celebrate their national cricket team victory in the World Cup 2015 © AFP
Afghan cricket fans in Kandahar celebrate their national cricket team victory in the World Cup 2015 © AFP

What followed?

– Scotland finished their third World Cup without a win.

– Afghanistan did not win another match either, losing comfortably to Australia, New Zealand, and England. However, in less than two years’ time they improved so much that they are currently eyeing Test status.

Brief scores:

Scotland 210 in 50 overs (Shapoor Zadran 4 for 38, Dawlat Zadran 3 for 29) lost to Afghanistan 211 for 9 in 49.3 overs (Javed Ahmadi 51, Samiullah Shenwari 96*; Richie Berrington 4 for 40) by 1 wicket with 3 balls to spare.

Man of the Match: Samiullah Shenwari.