Afghanistan cricket team (Photo| AP)
Not many may like taking in the same breath he name of the universally popular sport along with one that boasts of a dozen Test-playing teams, with Afghanistan being the latest entrant. On the eve of the World Cup kick-off, FIFA announced that the 2026 edition will for the first time be hosted by United States, Mexico and Canada, and that 48 teams will be contesting instead of 32.
It took over 40 years for the World Cup to expand from 16 to 24 teams when it was played in Spain in 1982. It took 16 more years to add eight more teams, in 1998 when France won at home.
Compare this with the cricket World Cup. It started with eight teams in 1975 and remained the same for the next two editions (both played in England). ICC tried their experiment of globalising cricket by increasing the number to 10, 12, 14 and even 16 for the 2007 event (in West Indies). But they are back to 10 for the next two tournaments in England and India.
While FIFA wants football to be a truly global sport, ICC — obsessed with quality of its game — is regressing by restricting the number. It, however, did well to grant Ireland and Afghanistan Test status after both performed well in limited-over formats. That shows the difference between the popularity of football and that of cricket.
India are the No 1 Test team. In football, they have broken into the top-100 (97 to be precise, three below their best-ever ranking of 94 in 1996). Ahead of the World Cup, Indian football was more in the news for the video message of national captain Sunil Chhetri. It showed him pleading with fans to come and watch his team play in the Inter-Continental Tournament in Mumbai, even if they wanted to criticise them.
The result was that from some 2,000-odd spectators, the crowd swelled to a capacity 7,000 when India played their match! They won the tournament, never mind the strength of the teams that participated. Chhetri was the hero of the tournament, and also became the joint-highest scorer at the national level with Lionel Messi (64 goals).
The comparison should end there, yet you can’t take away from the Indian captain’s performance at his level, having played 101 international games. He took India to the Asian Confederation Cup finals after eight years.
Getting back to cricket, India were the sixth team to gain Test status in 1932, and Afghanistan are the 12th today, after Pakistan (1952), Sri Lanka (1982), Zimbabwe (1992), Bangladesh (2000) and Ireland (2018). The Irish acquitted themselves by making a fist of things during their outing against Pakistan, a month ahead of the Afghans.
Progress has been slow, and it will take a few more years for another team to make its way into the elite Test club.
Afghanistan saw their formal cricket set-up being established less than two-and-a-half decades ago. And they have performed exceedingly well on their first day in Test cricket. They fought back after being pinned to the mat, leaving the field at the end of the day with their heads held high.
On a greenish pitch, prepared for the Indian team with their upcoming England tour on mind, Afghan pacers Yamin Ahmadzai and Wafadar, as well as spinners Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman — both hot IPL commodities — showed that they have the attack and the will to take the fight to the India camp. They came back strongly, never looking like they were resigning to their fate.
Nor Shikhar Dhawan’s hundred before lunch on the first day of a Test (the first time an Indian has achieved the feat), nor his opening partner Murali Vijay’s century, nor a staggering score of 280/1 unnerved the Afghans. They forced India to end the day at 347/6 , claiming five wickets for 67 runs after rains halted play for quite a while.
That’s a good enough performance for a team making its debut, and that should definitely give them the heart to take this Test a fair distance. (The writer is a veteran commentator and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)