It’s highly unlikely there’s any other team in international sport whose rise has been so dramatic in the last few years than the Afghanistan cricket team. They have just become the first Associate nation in history to beat a Full Member country in a bilateral One Day International series, taking down Zimbabwe, and have repeated the feat in the T20 series currently taking place.
The Rise of Afghan Cricket
Afghanistan only became an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001 after the Taliban lifted a ban on cricket being played in the country. In 2008, Afghanistan began their first World Cup qualifying campaign in Division 5 of the World Cricket League, a competition designed for non-Test playing nations. That year’s competition was hosted in Jersey and their opponents included Japan, Botswana and Norway, hardly members of cricket’s global elite.
Although they didn’t manage to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, their performances started making people take notice, and they gained ODI status from the ICC for the next four years. They made their World Cup 50-over debut in the 2015 event down-under in Australia and New Zealand, beating Scotland and giving Sri Lanka a real fright to boot.
In addition to their sole 50-over World Cup appearance, Afghanistan have also participated in three World T20 tournaments now, winning their first game in the 2014 competition by beating Hong Kong in the early group stages.
And so to the historic series win over Zimbabwe. Inzamam-ul-Haq, the former Pakistani batting titan, was appointed coach for the Zimbabwe tour and no doubt Afghanistan have benefited from his experience. This was a five-match series played in Zimbabwe’s backyard and Afghanistan showed tremendous character as they came from behind to steal the series in the deciding match for a 3-2 victory.
Zimbabwe hammered Afghanistan by eight wickets in the first ODI, winning with an enormous 160 balls remaining as the Test nation exerted their authority early on. Not to be deterred, Afghanistan stormed back to win the second ODI by 58 runs, with Mohammad Nabi scoring his maiden ODI ton.
The third game was a tight affair which went down to the wire as Zimbabwe edged over the line with two balls remaining to win by six wickets. A low-scoring nip-and-tuck game was won by Afghanistan in match four. They chased down their target of 184 with three wickets left in a low-scoring effort as Moahammad Shahzad lead from the top of the order with 80.
Afghanistan then saved their best for last as they cruised to victory in the deciding match of the series in Bulawayo. They batted first and hit 245 from their 50 overs, with a pair of 50s for Noor Ali Zadran and Mohammad Nabi. Although Sean Williams hit 102 for the hosts in response, the Afghan bowlers strangled the life out of the rest of the batting line-up with nobody else passing 16. Dawalt Zadran was the star man with the ball for Afghanistan, taking 4-22 to spark celebrations for the visitors and seal their place in history.
Afghanistan currently sit higher in the world T20 rankings than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. They have also won the first two T20 matches against Zimbabwe to take an unassailable lead in the three-match series. Chasing 190 in a T20 game is no mean feat, but that’s exactly what Afghanistan did in the second match, winning with one ball to spare in another thriller.
But what next for Afghanistan? They have qualified for the World T20 tournament in India in 2016, but the controversial issue over the ICC’s decision to limit the number of teams in the 2019 ODI World Cup mean that the odds are currently stacked against them making the trip there.
In terms of Test match cricket, there’s a carrot here for Afghanistan as well which was never there previously. The winners of the latest Intercontinental Cup four-day competition will be given the chance of a home and away play-off against the tenth ranked Test nation in 2018. The winner of that match would secure Test status for the next four years at least until 2022. Ireland are the hot favourites for the Intercontinental Cup, having won four of the previous five tournaments. However, the mere fact that the route to Test match cricket is now open for Afghanistan should provide a major incentive as they strive to continuously improve.
For this team to rise up from the ravages of a war-torn nation and go on a meteoric rise through the quagmire of Associate and Affiliate international cricket is nothing short of remarkable. Afghanistan are at the stage where they are regularly qualifying for international limited overs tournaments and are capable of causing upsets.
How far they can go will depend largely on the funding they receive to develop the game in Afghanistan, as well as the opportunities they receive outside tournaments to play against Test-playing nations. One thing is for certain though; nobody should begrudge these Afghan cricketers any of their success on the international stage. One can only wish them the best of luck.