Cricket World Cup 2019: For winless Afghanistan, World Cup campaign not indicative of potential
Afghanistan skipper Gulbadin Naib: "It's not our level cricket." © AFP

SOUTHAMPTON: Gulbadin Naib knows that Afghanistan are better than this. Being down 0-5 in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, he insists, is not a reflection of the level of cricket Afghanistan can play. These are not hollow words from a luckless captain whose team has been beaten in five consecutive matches, by margins as big as 150 runs and nine wickets.

Keep in mind, before the World Cup, Afghanistan had not played a single international match in England. The closest they’d been was Ireland and Scotland. They were always battling the odds.

Naib is hurt by Afghanistan’s winless run in the tournament and constantly has to ask questions about his team’s performances. He hopes they improve, not least to give their spirited travelling fans and the many back home in Afghanistan – “if you look at my country, not everything is well,” he says – but to keep the critics at bay.

The question will continue to be asked, and not without reason: are Afghanistan good enough to be at the World Cup? They did everything required to be here. They won the ICC World Cup qualifiers by beating West Indies in the final in Harare. They are ranked in the top 10 ODI teams, which Naib reminded reporters at The Rose Bowl on Friday ahead of match 25 of the World Cup, against tournament favourites India.

(ALSO READ: India eye semi-final passage against Afghanistan)

2018 was the best year in Afghanistan cricket history. They made their long-cherished Test debut. At the Asia Cup in the UAE, they beat Sri Lanka by 91 runs and Bangladesh by 138 runs and then tied an ODI with India. In 2019, before the World Cup, they only played Ireland – all in their adopted home of Dehradun – across all three formats, and Ireland and Scotland.

Come the World Cup, they’ve been defeated by Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, South Africa and England. They should have beaten Sri Lanka in Cardiff, but lost the key moments. That has been Afghanistan’s problem in ODIs. Winning the key moments.

Look back at the Asia Cup, to the games they lost: by just three wickets to Pakistan in a last-over thriller, by three runs to Bangladesh in a last-ball finish. Even in that tie with India, Asghar Afghan’s team gave the UAE spectators a ripper of match. Under proper pressure, Afghanistan could not cope.

(ALSO READ: As injuries pile up, India look to stay adaptable)

That has revealed itself to be a problem in England, where the conditions have not suited their two superstars,  two biggest stars, Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan. Nabi, Afghanistan’s second-highest wicket-taker in ODIs, has four wickets in five matches. They all came in one match. Subtract that performance against Sri Lanka, and Nabi has been wicketless across 24.4 with an economy rate of 6.04. Not too bad, some will say, but Nabi not taking wickets has meant Afghanistan have been struggling to make inroads.

Rashid Khan Gulbadin Naib afghanistan cricket team
Naib on Rashid Khan: “He’s one of the strongest minded players.” © AFP

Rashid has fared worse: three wickets in five games, economy of 7.03. He is coming off his worst day in an Afghanistan jersey, having conceded 110 runs in nine overs against England at Old Trafford. Naib hailed Rashid’s spirit today, saying his strike bowler was “totally different” during training.

Five losses at a World Cup can deflate stronger, far more experienced teams. Look at the current South African team. What is troubling about this Afghanistan side is that it appears that their trademark fighting Afghan spirit has taken a beating. Barring the match against Australia in Bristol, in which they recovered from 77/5 to get to 207, and the last match versus England in Manchester, where after conceding 397 they rallied to play out 50 overs, there has been a distinct lack of grit.

For Naib, Afghanistan’s success over the last four or five years has raised expectations, which sadly the team hasn’t been able to live upto at this World Cup.

“We’re doing well in every part of Afghanistan, every department. It’s not like in cricket we’re doing well or not doing well,” he said. “We are here, it’s a high ranking cricket tournament. It’s a World Cup, we cannot say that everything is like an easy way out. We have targeted some of the teams here so we have a chance to win. Like supposedly before the start of the game of Sri Lanka, there was a good chance for us to beat them, but it’s bad luck, for our team especially.

“But if you specifically for our team, we didn’t play that good cricket. It’s not our level of cricket. How you play the cricket here, like if you look to the England side, the England match, we did well a lot of things there, especially we batted 50 overs. This is a good point. But if you look for the last four games, we didn’t do good anything. We didn’t do well. So that’s why we lost the game. But we’re trying to put good things of the match on the day, but it’s our bad luck.”

Naib wants Afghanistan to get more opportunities against top ten teams. © AFP

A huge challenge for Afghanistan is getting games against the top teams. It is not a financially viable prospect for big boards and big broadcasters to have bilateral series against Afghanistan, which means they mainly play the Associates.

Since the 2015 World Cup, Afghanistan have played the maximum ODIs versus Ireland (23) and Zimbabwe (21). In them, they won 13 against Zimbabwe and 12 against Ireland. After that, they have played West Indies the most (3) followed by Bangladesh (2) and Scotland (2). They have got one ODI against India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, all in the 2018 Asia Cup. Now they play against the others at the World Cup.

Based on their success against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, it could be expected that Afghanistan beat them again in the World Cup. They should have beaten Sri Lanka, having been 121/5 chasing 187, and have not met Bangladesh yet. Beating Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and England was always going to take something miraculous.

Naib identified the lack of matches against fellow top-ten teams as a hindrance for Afghanistan.

“Sure, we want also. If you look, we’re not playing against the other teams, our squad, but we do very well,” he said. “We want to improve our experience, so we should play against the good teams like India, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan. If you’re targeting the top five or top six teams, we should play a lot with them. If we play with them, maybe Afghanistan will be …yeah, we will be losing the matches, or we will be struggling, but one day Afghanistan will be different.

“So it’s good for us, so if we play good cricket with this kind of team, it’s a great experience, especially for the team and for the boys.”

You can be harsh and say that Naib’s words sound like the excuses of a man who knows his team’s campaign is abysmal. Outside the strongest of Afghanistan supporters, probably no-one ever expected that this team would make the World Cup semi-finals in England. But if somehow Afghanistan can allow themselves to just play their normal brand of cricket and not worry about results, they can put smiles on their fans’ faces.