Promising outcome but challenges remain

Afghanistan and Netherlands are the stories of the World Cup but now comes the hard bit
Afghanistan players celebrate a wicket against South Africa in their ODI World Cup match on Friday. (Photo | AFP))
Afghanistan players celebrate a wicket against South Africa in their ODI World Cup match on Friday. (Photo | AFP))

BENGALURU: When the Afghanistan players lined up for the anthems against South Africa at Ahmedabad on Friday, they would have done so with a 'what if?' hanging over their heads. What if they had beaten Australia? What if they were in control of their destiny? What if they hadn't been punched in the gut by a Glenn Maxwell-shaped wall. What if they were a win away from the semifinal?

Irrespective of where they finish, they are quite comfortably the story of the tournament. Four wins, three of which came over former champions. Within the context of the modern men's cricket World Cup, teams like Afghanistan aren't supposed to advance. Ever since Kenya's surprise run to the semifinals of the 2003 edition, the establishment has held sway in all the subsequent editions.  

In a cruel twist of fate, just when they seem to have taken big strides in understanding the grammar of ODI cricket — especially batting — they may run out of time to master the format. It was reported by the English media that the broadcasters have asked the International Cricket Council (ICC) to hold the 2025 Champions Trophy (Afghanistan are a part of it) in the T20 format.  

Skipper, Hashmatullah Shahidi, hoped that they would keep this format going in the long run. "We are hoping that they take a lot of series with other teams," he said before their game against South Africa. "The Champions Trophy is also ahead. There will be 50 overs of cricket, I'm expecting that. I hope that the ICC also makes a good call on it because 50-over cricket is also important. Right now, there are too many leagues, too much T20 cricket. So, if we have those games, we will definitely improve more and more."

At this level, more game time can be directly proportional to bigger results. But therein lies a dichotomy. Nations like Afghanistan just don't play enough ODI cricket. They most certainly do not play enough ODI cricket against the establishment. Friday was only their second game against South Africa and both of them have come at the World Cup.

Take a look at their 50-over fixtures over the next four-year World Cup cycle. They are scheduled to play 33 games but 24 of those are against Bangladesh, Ireland and Zimbabwe.    

But they are an exception because some members are big names in the global T20 leagues. So the likes of Rashid Khan, Noor Ahmed, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Naveen-ul-Haq and Fazalhaq Farooqi, to name a few, may continue to improve. But, in the long run, it's clearly unsustainable if you want to see holistic development.  

Netherlands' bleak future
So while Afghanistan may still keep the talent going to last another World Cup cycle, teams like Netherlands, India's next opponents, will find the going tougher. In India, they have displayed some admirable grit and in-game nous, especially in that match with South Africa.  

But, as it stands, they are going to play zero ODI matches versus full-members in the next four years. This wasn't the case in the last World Cup cycle because of the existence of the Super League. The Super League had given Netherlands 24 ODIs against full members as they had won the 2015-17 World League Championship. This meant that they had fixtures against South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies, Pakistan and England.

As it is, they are learning on the fly. Without bilateral games, they will be forced to improvise further. "We haven't put together the ideal game," Teja Nidamanuru had said after their encounter versus England. "I think there's some great reference points, not only for us but for the guys back home. And, yeah, we have been writing down that learning, we have been discussing that learning and also the overall skill it requires to be able to access the ball in different areas and rotate strike is something that we are going to continue to work on."

Let the reality of that statement sink in. Here's a team that's still coming to grips with strike rotation in the 50-over format. Without any more ODIs scheduled against the elite, that continuity will disappear.
One only needs to look at Kenya as to why that is important. Eleven years after their semifinal in 2003, they lost their ODI status.  

Numbers don't lie

0 - Netherlands are scheduled to play 0 ODIs against full-members in the upcoming World Cup cycle. They had played 24 against full-members in the 19-23 cycle because of the ODI Super League. There will be no more ODI Super League.

2 - Netherlands have played India in two ODIs, both of them have come in World Cups (2003 and 2011).

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