In May 2008, Afghanistan were included in the World Cricket League Division 5 in Jersey. Of their fourteen-man squad, only one has not since gone on to play ODI cricket, which goes some way to show the quality of that team compared to their opposition, but it was far from plain sailing for the cricketing newcomers. A heavy loss to Singapore due to the leg-breaks of Chrissi Janik meant that Afghanistan’s progress to the semi-final was assured only by having a better net run-rate than the unlucky Singapore side. Progress they did, though, into the final at the expense of local rivals Nepal. In the final, the superior quality of the Afghan bowling reared its head, but so did the ill-disciplined nature of the batting as the hosts’ meagre target of 80 took eight Afghan wickets to overhaul.
While Jersey couldn’t find success at the higher level, Afghanistan sailed through the Division Four tournament in Tanzania in October, finishing unbeaten and defeating Hong Kong in the final. After such comprehensive progress, they were suddenly among the favourites for the Division Three tournament in Buenos Aires three months later. Argentina were on their way down the cricketing ladder, and did not pose an obstacle to Afghanistan’s progression in the opposite direction. Neither did Uganda, who finished second, or PNG, who finished in an unlucky third place that meant they missed out on a place in the World Cup Qualifier by a difference of 0.103 on net run-rate.
Of course, from there followed a near miss on World Cup qualification, ODI status, two World Twenty20 participations, and an Intercontinental Cup. Despite occasionally patchy results, the Afghans are now established as the second best Associate behind Ireland… except that they are still only an Affiliate member of the ICC.
Afghanistan have found success quickly in the Taliban’s favourite sport.
Afghanistan’s seam bowling reserves rival those of many Test nations. If you asked Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, they’d be delighted to be able to call on Hamid Hassan, Dawlat Zadran, Shapoor Zadran, Izatullah Dawlatzai, Mirwais Ashraf and Aftab Alam’s varied talents. Hassan in particular is a potentially world class star who will be hoping to kick the small string of injuries he has developed. Samiullah Shenwari (leg-spin), Mohammad Nabi (off-spin), and Hamza Hotak (left arm orthodox) provide a varied spin threat, and all-rounder Gulbodin Naib also bowls a heavy ball.
If Afghanistan can improve anywhere, it’s in their discipline. For such a talented side, it is alarming how often good starts are thrown away and simple catches dropped. Never has this been more evident than the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka where these missed opportunities were mercilessly exposed by top class opposition. You might get away with these little errors against Canada, but Australia simply don’t give second chances. (Unless you’re Phil Hughes.)
This can only be Hamid Hassan. In sixteen ODIs, he has mustered an impressive tally of 27 wickets at 22 apiece. As well as representing the MCC alongside Mohammad Nabi in the champion county match, he was selected to play for the ICC Combined XI against England in the UAE. He impressed on both occasions, and earlier this year added a Bangladesh Premier League contract to his resume. Capable of generating devastating pace and swing, 25 year old Hassan could help shape Afghanistan into a real force to be reckoned with.
The set-up in Afghanistan is very strong. The 22-team provincial domestic structure has a nation-wide 25-over tournament, while the top six provinces also play in a 50-over tournament; Kabul have established themselves as the early big fish. There are also around 320 clubs in the country, although recent figures state that they have just six turf wickets among them. Cricket stadiums are being constructed in Nangarhar, Kandahar, Kabul and Jalalabad, while the government plans to build stadia in all 34 provinces in the next few years. This is a huge step up from the handful of bumpy nets that once constituted the National Cricket Academy.
The biggest problem for Afghanistan is their inability to host home games. The security situation in the country is as bad as it was the day the West invaded, and Afghanistan simply is not a safe place. Like Pakistan, they play their “home” games out of the UAE, where the facilities, although not the attendances, are world class.
Next week, I’ll take a look at an Associate who first appeared in the World Cup over thirty years ago: Canada. Until then.