“As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery.”
Martin Luther King Jr., the grandest preacher of freedom, who believed that every man had a right to live in a world devoid of shackles – not just political or societal – would hardly have been reflecting about the growth of a sport in a country when he was delivering his most influential speech, I Have A Dream, in America in 1963. The crusader for racism and mental enslavement fought and died for a cause, all the while encouraging the local citizens to take on the “powerful” oppressors for a just cause.
Far away from the universe that he had grown so accustomed to, a group of young individuals, who had been driven away from their homes, were learning the ropes of cricket to idle away time. Playing with paper balls, make-shift cardboard wickets and long wooden sticks that doubled up for a bat, the sport was offering an ounce of solace to the grief-stricken beings who were now settled in refugee camps in Pakistan. With the rule of Taliban spreading far and wide all over Afghanistan, and with all sports banned, the country was imprisoned – not physically, but psychologically.
The very same individuals, who had grown up learning the tricks of the game in small camps in Pakistan, are now professionals with serious skill sets. Though they might never have heard of Luther King’s sermons, an identification of the importance of self-esteem and the will to attain the utmost freedom to achieve dreams fast-tracked Afghanistan’s journey into the cricketing realm.
A journey of obstacles and passion
As Asghar Afghan’s side impressed with their ability to run all four nations close in the Asia Cup – two wins, two last over losses and one tie against a rampaging India team – the rapid strides that have been taken by the sport in the nation is not only impressive, but mightily inspiring as well. The side was entrusted with the Affiliate tag in 2001 after the Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed six years earlier and in the next decade, they had taken serious steps towards fulfilling their dreams.
They steadily rose up from Division Five in the World Cricket League to win Division Three within two years. Though Afghanistan failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2011, they had done well to earn an ODI status, albeit for just four years. In the next five years, the side collected a strong bunch of players, with Mohammad Shahzad and Mohammad Nabi leading the pack. A one-dimensional goal coupled with passionate youngsters, who were eager to leave the horrifying images of the struggles of their childhood behind, and officials, who were keen to ensure that Afghanistan was not just known as a nation that had been gruesomely invaded by America, eventually led to consistent wins over higher-ranked teams.
The largest victory came when the side was awarded a Test status last year, and since then there has been no looking back.
An inspired performance in 2018
With 12 wins in 20 ODI matches this year, Afghanistan have more than proved that they no longer are mere minnows. In Shahzad – who blazed away to a fine ton against India – and skipper Afghan, the side has experienced campaigners who can steady the ship in crucial encounters and moments. Hashmatullah Shahidi, Najibullah Zadran and Rahmat Shah are rising as determined young cricketers who all average more than 38 with the bat in 2018. Dawlat Zadran, Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Najibullah Zadran and Rashid Khan have a strike-rate of more than 90 with the bat and have been instrumental in ensuring each innings ends on a high. Packed with solid all-rounders, the team has enough firepower with the bat, but it is the bowling that has stood out to impress in more ways than one.
This year, Afghanistan have scored more than 260 runs only once – when they managed 333 runs against Zimbabwe at Sharjah in February. Four times they have scored between 250 and 260 this year while batting first, losing two, winning one and tying the game with India. Four times the score notched up by the Afghan batsmen have been less than 250 batting first, and Afghanistan have ended as the winning side on three occasions, which adequately states the commendable job that is being done by their bowlers, led by Rashid.
What is more remarkable however, is the performances of the unit when Afghanistan are fielding first. Not once have the young group of bowlers given away more than 250 runs this year. The highest score that they conceded was 246 runs against Bangladesh early in the Asia Cup. 10 times Rashid and Co. Have restricted the rivals to a score of 215 or less in 11 matches where they have bowled first, winning 7 of those games.
The fact that two Afghan bowlers, Rashid and Mujeeb ur Rahman lead the global wicket-taking tally this year – they have 48 and 37 wickets at 14.45 and 19.54, respectively – implies how integral the spinners have been to the success of the side. More importantly, in an era when flat tracks and scores above 320 are easily set up and chased down, a side like Afghanistan have been reversing the trend and doing so against competitive teams like Zimbabwe, Ireland and Bangladesh.
With constant high-scores and lop-sided matches, a sense of monotony had crept over the cricketing world but by breaking the norm and by carving their own niche where bowlers lead the way, and consistently, Afghanistan, in their short stay have proven that more than the war-torn needing cricket to bring jubilation, the sport needs a team who can shy away from the common to script a unique tale.