CHENNAI: The story has been told several times over but it’s worth repeating. On the night of December 24, 1979, Afghanistan’s world crumbled around them.
As the Soviets placed their tanks in Afghanistan’s direction with the last vestiges of the Cold War underway, the citizens of their country were rendered helpless.
As the fighting intensified, many of the locals fled to neighbouring Pakistan or Iran.
Many who reached Pakistan were put up in the Kacha Garhi refugee camp in Peshawar. It was there they learned the basics of cricket.
When the fighting stopped, some of those who fell in love with the game returned to Afghanistan. One of those was Mohammad Nabi.
On Friday night inside Dubai’s Ring of Fire, Nabi captained the country of his birth against the country that helped him form an understanding about the sport.
As a country, Afghanistan’s last few months has been terrible to say the least. The US withdrew its troops, the Taliban took back power and — depending on which reports you read — a lot of the other things like girls not going back to schools, women not playing sport as well as random killings also happened.
As soon as they wrested back power, it was not a surprise that questions were asked about the men’s cricket team’s legitimacy to compete — a minor question in the wider picture but still a question — at the World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
The ICC had made an exception then to make them a Full Nation when they didn’t have a women’s team.
With a few months to go for the World Cup, they weren’t going to pull the plug on cricket’s wildest, craziest feel-good story, not yet anyway. But the pressure these 15 men would face in the UAE was immense.
While playing in The Hundred, a symbolic Rashid Khan gesture travelled far and wide. He had painted the Afghanistan flag on his cheeks (the Taliban have their own version). On his Twitter account, he literally appealed for peace.
“Kabul is bleeding again,” he posted on August 26. “STOP KILLING AFGHAN PLEASE”.
In Afghanistan’s warm-up game against West Indies before the tournament, two things happened.
Afghanistan not only won by 56 runs but they also hit a bigger number of sixes when compared to the West Indies (6 vs 2).
Sure, you can argue warm-up games lack context and one cannot make any grand conclusions but this felt significant because Afghanistan have been the closest side to Windies when it came to prioritising boundaries: stats back this up.
Even otherwise, their front-loaded batting line-up is the most explosive among all Full Member Nations in the planet in this format (this includes England and West Indies).
Hazratullah Zazai strikes at 154.65, Mohammad Shahzad strikes at 134.94, Rahmanullah Gurbaz at 141.78 and Najibullah Zadran’s comparative number is 143.64 (yes, some of those numbers have come up against Associates).
It isn’t see ball, hit ball’ but it’s based on an ultra modern T20 approach; six-hitting trumps all, target the short boundaries and don’t mind eating dot balls if the trade-off is extra boundaries.
When it comes off — as it did against Scotland — it can be pretty spectacular. They chewed up 43 dots but hit 13 4s and 11 6s. On days like Friday, it can backfire.
Even then, they deserve credit for sticking to what they knew best. 62 dots, 20 boundaries, 61.2 per cent of runs coming in boundaries.
It partially worked: they scored more runs (90) in boundaries against this Pakistan bowling line-up than both India (68) and New Zealand (66).
After losing to Pakistan, the challenge for them between now and the end of the tournament is simple. If they can take down one of the bigger sides (New Zealand or India) coupled with beating Namibia, it could come down to NRR.
One thing, though, is simple. Unlike in previous ICC events, they aren’t here to make up the numbers. They don’t just believe, they genuinely have the skillsets in this format to challenge the best.
However, there is also a bigger factor at play and you cannot ignore it. It was best summed up by Khan after their match against Scotland.
“I hope this win have given you something to smile and celebrate,” he tweeted. For a country that has neither smiled nor celebrated in months, their cricket team is trying to be a proxy for both.Can they keep doing that?
Brief scores: Afghanistan 147/6 in 20 ovs (Naib 35 n.o, Nabi 35 n.o) lost to Pakistan 148/5 in 19 ovs (Babar 51, Asif 25 n.o).