Later this month, the Afghanistan cricket team will have their maiden outing at the Home of Cricket, Lord’s Cricket Ground, when they take on MCC in an exhibition match. The moment the Afghan cricketers come out of the iconic Long Room and step onto the grassy outfield of the most prestigious cricket centre in the world, a long voyage will be completed – a voyage, which was started in the refugee camps of Pakistan towards the end of the twentieth century.
From a non-existent cricket team till 2003 to a Test playing nation in 2017 – this has been a story of passion, determination and commitment. In a country like Afghanistan, which has been ripped apart by religious extremism and foreign invasion for decades, any sporting prowess is like a ray of hope for a better future for the long deprived regime. Getting the recognition from the International Cricket Council (ICC) as a Test playing nation has been one such moment of pride for this war-trodden country.
This is the starting point of a new era of Afghan cricket. The battle in the ICC Boardroom may have been won, but now on the Afghan cricket fraternity has to learn to live with the fresh challenges, expectations and responsibilities which come along with the tag of full membership and a Test playing nation.
Let us find out some of these fresh challenges, which the Afghan cricket fraternity now has to deal with after joining the big boys club.
Grassroots and Infrastructure development
By the virtue of being a full member, the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) will now receive $40 million from the ICC over eight years. It is expected will invest the majority of this fund into the grassroots and infrastructure development.
In a country, where suicide bombing and drone attacks are a day-to-day affair, there is very little infrastructure available for the budding cricketers to harness their skills. Currently, only six out of the 34 provinces of the country have proper arrangements to play the sport. So, the primary target for the local administrators will be to spread the game in the distant corners of the country and build some practice facilities for the youngsters to attract them towards the sport.
Considering the current security situation in the country, we do not expect Afghanistan to host international matches at home in the near future, but they have to have the facilities in place in order to bid for it in future. Recently it has been reported in the local media that with some foreign aid, ACB is planning to build an ‘international standard cricket stadium’ in Kabul. This centre is expected to be the hub of Afghanistan cricket. Also with the fund from ICC, ACB has to upgrade their National Cricket Centre with modern amenities as well.
Shaping a proper domestic structure
A proper domestic structure is a lifeline of any top level international team. However, currently, Afghanistan cricket is struggling to shape one.
The Ahmad Shah Abdali tournament, which is the only multi-day was competition in Afghanistan, was implemented only in 2014 and it has just received the First-Class status. At present only six regional teams compete in the championship. This red-ball tournament has to be identified as the pipeline of Afghanistan cricket from now on. The young cricketers should be encouraged to give utmost priority to this tournament. The best performing players should get picked for the ‘A’ tours to develop their game in different conditions.
The ACB has a domestic 20-over competition, Shpageeza Cricket League (SCL), but the 50-over format is yet to be sorted. Meanwhile, the board is planning to upgrade the SCL into a franchise-based T20 league, involving foreign cricketers. Sharing dressing room and playing alongside international cricketers will be a huge learning curve for the young Afghan cricketers.
Convincing top teams to play against Afghanistan
Beside all these challenges, the most defining task for the ACB will be, convincing top cricketing nations to play against Afghanistan at the Test level. Only get to play against the lower ranked teams, will not help their cause much. As per the current agreement, Afghanistan will be playing a minimum of four Test matches per year. ACB has to make sure that one or two matches of those four should be against top-ranked Test teams.
Developing women’s cricket
Another tough ask for the administrators is going to be, developing women’s cricket in the country. Now being a full member, Afghanistan have to look into this aspect of the game, keeping aside all the cultural and religious barriers.
During their early days at the international arena, most of the Afghan cricketers had only two goals – either bowl as fast as possible or hit it as hard as they can. The team has travelled a long way from that phase and now their players have to raise their game to the next level to sustain in this new era, and thankfully for Afghanistan cricket, someone like Rashid Khan or Mohammad Nabi have already shown glimpses of doing so.