Sports. Honestly. Since 2011

Afghanistan World Cup Heroes

When Scotland were 144-8, Afghanistan looked like they would stroll to victory.

When Scotland’s tail crept to 210, and Afghanistan crumbled to 97-7, the game had swung definitively in the other direction, or so it seemed.

When Dawlat Zadran fell after a determined nine off 25 balls, Scotland were two wickets away from their first ever World Cup victory. When Samiullah Shenwari, the man upon whose shoulders Afghanistan’s hopes appeared to rest, found deep midwicket and left the crease four short of Afghanistan’s first World Cup hundred, all looked lost for Mohammad Nabi’s men. Shenwari had plundered three sixes off Majid Haq’s over. Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran, the last men, who had bowled heroically earlier in the day, took Afghanistan over the line. A low full toss from Iain Wardlaw was flicked to fine leg by Zadran, a typical tailender’s boundary, and the scenes of celebration were indescribable.

Afghanistan World Cup Heroes

It was impossible to measure what the win meant to Shapoor, Hassan and the other players. They have come so far from World Cricket League Division Five, when they beat Japan in the first match on their journey to ODI status. Six of the current team – Mohammad Nabi, Nawroz Mangal, Hamid Hassan, Stanikzai, Shenwari and Gulbadin Naib – played in the Japan match. For them, this is a literal journey as well as a metaphorical one, a journey that has taken them all over the world to reach this moment. Their story has already been the subject of a documentary and a book chapter. Any Hollywood director who has heard of Afghanistan’s rise must surely have started casting by now. The script so far is utterly, utterly compelling.

At the end of any life-to-Hollywood movie, just before the credits roll, the producers tell us what happened next. So what will happen next for Zadran, Hassan, Nabi, Shenwari and the others? Where the story ends is up to the ICC.

Days before the tournament began, ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson said that replacing the current inclusive competition with a ten-team tournament would ensure a competitive spectacle between evenly-matched teams. This game, between two associate nations, would never have happened under the ICC’s initial plans for the 2015 World Cup: it was originally going to be a closed tournament for the ten full members only. The 2019 proposals have a slightly thicker veil of meritocracy, requiring at least two full members to play in the qualification tournament. The first one will be held in Bangladesh, thereby giving the strongest full member likely to be part of that competition a significant home advantage.

This enthralling encounter, coming less than a day after Ireland beat the UAE from a seemingly impossible position, should have been the greatest advert for the game of cricket. Countries where as yet cricket has not taken root should be able to look at Afghanistan and think, that could be us. Young children should be able to watch Shapoor Zadran striding in from the boundary and think, that could be me. The ICC doesn’t want Shapoor Zadran. The ICC doesn’t want those children or those countries, either. They have made that abundantly clear.

The Gabba, where Ireland played UAE, looked all but abandoned. Dunedin, a far smaller ground, looked slightly fuller, but was far from packed. After these games, perhaps more antipodean cricket fans will be taking themselves to watch the associates perform on the world stage. It will probably be their last chance, and from the games just passed, it promises to be a memory that they won’t forget.

A thoughtful Shenwari, facing the media as man of the match, breaks into a smile when describing the moment of victory. He had fielded a question about his innings with greater eloquence than many a media-trained English professional. He also reaffirmed Afghanistan’s ambition to play Test cricket. These were not mere words: Afghanistan’s four-day domestic tournament is a clear commitment to producing cricketers with the skills needed for Test matches. Sri Lankan first-class cricket is played across three days, and the ECB are discussing reducing the County Championship to three days as well. The pathway set by the ICC to Test cricket is exposed as deeply inadequate. Ireland and Afghanistan are both eager to play the longest form, and have shown a greater faith in the format’s future than many of their full member counterparts.

Ten years ago, Shenwari recalls, Afghanistan had nothing in the way of cricket. Although he doesn’t say it, ten years from now they may have nothing again. The ICC wants them out of the World Cup, has no intention of guaranteeing them regular games against top sides, and intends to keep them second-class citizens in terms of funding as well. Ten years from now they may have nothing, but now, now is their moment. They, and we, ought to make the most of it.

Spare a thought for Scotland. In their third World Cup, and with the best team they have ever had, they must feel like a higher power is against them. They have done creditably against New Zealand and England, but are still waiting. Put in mere cricketing terms, their top order hasn’t contributed to the cause. Calum MacLeod, a star in qualifying, has flopped on the big stage, and they have tried two first-drop batsmen so far with little success from either Hamish Gardiner or Freddie Coleman.

But really, the narrative thrust of this match was taken away from the Scots. The game simply stopped being about them. 74 off 72 with two wickets in hand became mere numbers, the outlines of the latest challenge for men who have faced and overcome so many challenges before. And have so many left to face.

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