The Journey of Afghanistan Cricket: How they changed their fate in the game

Yash Vardhan Darolia

ICC World Twenty20 India 2016:  England v Afghanistan

Afghanistan cricket has received the admiration from the entire cricketing world for their journey from being a war-torn nation to receiving a full member status in all 3 formats of the game. The Afghanistan journey is one which has left everyone spellbound with awe and affection.

The country which was granted the status of an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2001 is currently a part of the top 10 teams in the ICC ODI rankings. They are also ranked 8th on the T20 rankings ahead of World Cup winners like Sri Lanka. Afghanistan was recently granted the status of a Test playing nation on the 22nd of June, 2017. The growth of Afghanistan cricket has been phenomenal over the years.

A country which was playing 5th Division cricket in 2008 is currently posing a threat to top-ranked teams like India and Pakistan. Afghanistan in the past one year has caused great upsets beating World Cup winning teams like West Indies and Sri Lanka.

Afghanistan first qualified for a World Cup tournament in 2013 after defeating Kenya in the ICC World Cricket League Championship. That win brought them the opportunity to feature in the 2015 ICC World Cup. In the 2015 World Cup, Afghanistan achieved its first ever victory in the World Cup as they defeated Scotland. The players who earlier used to stay in refugee camps are today leading the charts in International cricket.

Afghanistan also received great appreciation for their inaugural edition of the Afghanistan Premier League. Players like Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum, and Shahid Afridi also took part in the inaugural edition. In the past two years, the performance of the Under-19 team has been splendid.

They emerged winners of the Under-19 Asia Cup in 2017 defeating Pakistan in the Finals and also reached the semi-finals of the ICC Under-19 World Cup this year. Some of the major highlights of the journey of Afghanistan cricket so far are shown as follows.

Performance in ODIs

The Afghanistan team for the ICC 2015 World Cup

Afghanistan received their ODI status in 2009 and their first ODI game was against Scotland. Afghanistan is currently ranked 10th in the ODI rankings.

ICC World Cup 2015 - Afghanistan first featured in a 50 over World Cup in the 2015 World Cup. The World Cup provided them with a taste of cricket played at the highest level. They were drawn with teams like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Scotland, England and hosts Australia, New Zealand.

The team led by the experienced Mohammad Nabi played 6 games out of which they lost 5. The highlight for them was their first ever World Cup wins which came in their 3rd match against Scotland. The match was a nail-biter where Afghanistan prevailed to win by 1 wicket. 

Afghanistan played a series of matches post the 2015 World Cup where they played teams like Bangladesh, Ireland, and Zimbabwe. They played out a series which ended 2-1 against Bangladesh and then went on to thrash Zimbabwe 4-1. They also prevailed 3-2 over Ireland in the 5 match series. They even registered a 1-1 draw against West Indies in the 3 match series.

Asia Cup 2018 – Afghanistan showcased its best cricket in recent times and how they are a force to be reckoned with in the recently concluded Asia Cup. Afghanistan was drawn with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in Group B.

They started their Asia Cup campaign against Sri Lanka. In their first game, they rode high on Rahmat Shahs 72 and contributions from both the openers to put up a total of 249. In reply to Afghanistan’s 249, Sri Lanka got skittled out for 158 in 41.2 overs. Sri Lanka was bamboozled by the spin trio of Rashid Khan, Mujeeb and Mohammad Nabi. All three of them picked 2 wickets each. Afghanistan’s win brought an end to Sri Lanka's Asia Cup campaign.

In the next match, Afghanistan once again put up a clinical performance with both bat and ball to thrash Bangladesh by 136 runs. With their back to back wins, they qualified for the Super Fours topping Group B. The spin trio of Afghanistan once again prevailed picking 5 of the Bangladeshi wickets in the 27.1 overs they bowled conceding just 59 runs amongst them.

In the Super Four Afghanistan lost 2 of their 3 games to Pakistan and Bangladesh in games which went down to the wire. They were beaten by Pakistan. Pakistan after their early wobbles was able to beat Afghanistan riding on Shoaib Malik's unbeaten 78 of 90 balls to win by 3 wickets. In their next game against Bangladesh, the match went to the last ball as Afghanistan lost by 3 runs.

The most thrilling match of the tournament came between the defending champions India and Afghanistan. Batting first Afghanistan’s opener Mohammad Shahzad scored a dominating 124 off 116 balls. His innings took Afghanistan to 252 at the end of their 50 overs. The Indian team started off really well with the openers KL Rahul and Ambati Rayudu scoring at over 6 an over.

The Men in Blue were in a comfortable position with the score at 110 at the end of the 16th over. Then came the spin duo of Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi who reduced India to 205 for 6 in 39.4 overs with the likes of Dinesh Karthik and M.S.Dhoni back to the pavilion. The Afghanistan team looked to be on top.

The match went to the last over with India needing 7 runs to win with 1 wicket in hand. Rashid Khan bowled the last over. Ravindra Jadeja smashed Rashid for a four in the second ball of the over after which India just needed 3 to win off 4 balls.

On the second last ball of the over with the scores level, Jadeja going for a pull got caught at midwicket to end the game as a tie. Mohammad Shahzad was awarded the Man of the Match trophy for his brilliance with the bat earlier on. Rashid Khan ended as the joint highest wicket taker of the tournament with 10 wickets. 

Performance in T20s

The Afghanistan team with Chris Gayle after defeating the West Indies in the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup

Afghanistan is currently ranked 8th in the T20 Rankings ahead of teams like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. They have played in 4 ICC T20 World Cups in the years 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. The 2014 T20 World Cup in Bangladesh brought Afghanistan their first win in the history of the T20 World Cup as they went on to beat Hong Kong by 7 wickets. Afghanistan had never prevailed beyond the First Round of the T20 World Cup till the 2016 T20 World Cup in India.

In the 2016 T20 World Cup, Afghanistan was grouped with Zimbabwe, Scotland and Hong Kong in Group B. Afghanistan registered comfortable wins over all three of them to top Group B and go ahead of the group stages for the first time. Bangladesh and Afghanistan qualified as winners of Group A and B respectively to make it to the Super 10s.

In the super 10s, Afghanistan was grouped with West Indies, England, South Africa, and Sri Lanka. In the first two games, Afghanistan was completely outplayed by Sri Lanka and South Africa as they lost both the games.

Their third game of the Super 10s saw them face England who they valiantly reduced to 142 for 7 in 20 overs owing to the brilliance of Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan. Both of them ended with identical figures of 2 for 17 in 4 overs each. Afghanistan put up a tough fight but eventually fell short by 15 runs at the end of their 20 overs.

After putting up an inspiring performance against England, the Afghanistan team took on West Indies in their last game of the tournament with nothing to lose. Afghanistan riding on Zadran’s 48 off 40 balls put up a total of 123 for 7 at the end of their 20 overs. What lied ahead was something no one could have imagined.

The spin twins Nabi and Rashid once again ended with identical figures of 2 for 26 in 4 over each to defeat the West Indies by 6 runs. The West Indies, later on, went on to win the ICC T20 World Cup for 2016 after defeating England in the finals by 4 wickets. Mohammad Nabi ended as the leading wicket-taker of the tournament picking up 12 wickets. 

Test debut against India

The Afghanistan team with the Indian team at the end of the Test Match

Afghanistan played their first ever Test match on the 14th of June, 2018 against India at the M.Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore after being granted the status of a Test playing nation by the ICC on the 22nd of June,2017. The Afghanistan team was led by the experienced Asghar Afghan with the presence of stars like Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad, Rahmat Shah, and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. The toss was won by the Indians who decided to bat first.

The Indian openers started off fiercely hitting the Afghanistan bowlers all over the park with the likes of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman going for over 4 an over. Shikhar Dhawan scored a quick fire 107 off 96 balls before being dismissed by Yamin Ahmadzai. Dhawan's wicket was the first wicket for Afghanistan in Test Cricket. Murali Vijay’s century and contributions from KL Rahul and Hardik Pandya took India to a score of 474 at the end of 104.5 overs. For Afghanistan, Ahamadzai picked up 3 wickets whereas Wafadar and Rashid ended with 2 wickets each.

The first innings of Afghanistan’s batting came to an end with them getting all out for 109 runs with Ashwin picking up 4 wickets. India imposed the follow-on as Afghanistan went out to bat again. This time around too, Afghanistan got skittled out for 103 runs exposing their inexperience.

Jadeja was the pick of the bowlers for India as he picked up 4 wickets. The Man of the Match award was given to Shikhar Dhawan for his century which laid the foundation for India’s thumping win by an innings and 262 runs. 

The major contributors to Afghanistan cricket in recent years

#1 Rashid Khan

Rashid Khan

The story of Rashid Khan is one which is no less than a fairy-tale. He too, like some of the other players, fled during the Afghan war and stayed in Pakistan. The 20-year-old leggie from Jalalabad is currently on top of all the charts.

His excellent performances have earned him the number 1 spot in the bowler’s rankings of ICC in both ODI and T20 Cricket. Along with that, he’s also ranked 1st in the All-rounders rankings. He’s been one of the major contributors to the current performances of the Afghans. He is currently the most talked about player both in the ODIs and T20s.

He’s a part of all the major T20 leagues in the world like the Indian Premier League, Bangladesh Premier League, Caribbean Premier League, Big Bash League, and the Pakistan Super League. Apart from this, he also is a part of the English county league where he plays for Sussex. He recently led the Kabul Zwanan to the finals of the recently concluded Afghanistan Premier League. A few of the major achievements in his career so far are as follows:

·        He received the highest ever bid for a Player from the Associate countries has received in the IPL.

·        He claimed the first ever hat-trick in the Caribbean Premier League

·        He was named the ICC 2017 Associate Player of the Year

·        He was the youngest player in T20s to take 100 wickets.

·        He became the first player to take five wickets in 2 overs against Ireland where he took 5 wickets giving away 3 runs in 2 overs.

·        He achieved the best bowling figures for a bowler from the Associate Nations for his figures of 7 for 18 against the West Indies in 2017.

·        He s the joint highest wicket-taker in the 2018 Asia Cup. 

·        He is currently the top-ranked bowler for both ODIs and T20s in the ICC Rankings. He is also the top-ranked All-Rounder in T20s.

#2 Mohammad Nabi

Mohammad Nabi

Mohammad Nabi has been a part of the journey of Afghanistan cricket from the very beginning going back from playing cricket in the 5th division to achieving the status of an ODI team. He’s been a major contributor to Afghanistan's qualification for both the T20 and 50 over world cup with both bat and ball. Nabi had captained Afghanistan to major tournaments like the Asia Cup and ICC World T20 in 2014 and the ICC World Cup in 2015.

Nabi was named the Man of the Series for his run scoring in the bilateral series against Zimbabwe where he scored 223 runs leading Afghanistan to victory by 3-2. This also was recorded as the first time an associate nation had beaten a full member in a bilateral tournament. He has the following records to his name:

·        Record for the fastest 50 scored by an Afghan player in T20 cricket.

·        First Afghan bowler to pick up 100 wickets in ODI cricket.

·        First cricketer to play 100 games for Afghanistan.

·        Captained the Balk Legends to victory in the inaugural edition of the Afghanistan Premier League 2018.

·        Leading wicket-taker in the ICC T20 World Cup in 2016.

#3 Mohammad Shahzad

Mohammad Shahzad with his trademark celebration

Mohammad Shahzad the explosive opening batsman and wicket-keeper of Afghanistan is one of the most entertaining cricketers in International cricket. He’s featured in both the Bangladesh Premier League and Pakistan Super League. He is also one of the most feared batsmen in ODIs and T20s.

He showcased his brilliance in the recently concluded Asia Cup where he smashed the Indian bowlers all around the park as he scored a quick-fire 124 off 116 balls. He is a big fan of MS Dhoni and has a similar batting style like his icon. He has the following records to his name:

·        First Afghan to score an ODI century.

·        First Afghan to score a first-class double century.

·        Became the first associate player in 2016 to score 10 50 plus scores in T20s

·        He is also the only cricketer in history to score 2 fifties in 2 separate international matches on the same day.

·        He has the most number of T20 Man of the match awards won by an associate member

·        He is the highest run scorer of the Associate nations. 

·        Named the ICC Associate and Affiliate Player of the Year in 2016.

#4 Mujeeb-Ur-Rahman

Mujeeb Ur Rahman featured for the Kings XI Punjab in the 2018 IPL

Mujeeb is one of the young rising stars of the Afghanistan team. Born on 28th March 2001 he is also one of the youngest cricketers playing International cricket currently. He rose to fame when he picked up 17 wickets against Bangladesh in an under 19 bilateral series. He was also a major part of the triumph of the Afghanistan Under-19 team in their victory of the Under-19 Asia Cup in 2017 where he picked up 6 wickets against Nepal in the semi-finals and 5 wickets against Pakistan in the finals.

Due to his performances, he was picked up by the Comilla Victorians in the Bangladesh Premier League and then went on to be picked up by the Kings XI Punjab for Rs.4 crore for IPL 2018. He has the following records to his name at such a young age:

·        Holds the record for the most wickets picked up a bowler in a youth bilateral series.

·        Youngest player to take a 5 wicket haul in an ODI.

·        Named the Rising Star of Afghanistan

·        Youngest cricketer to play in the IPL.

Inaugural Edition of the Afghanistan Premier League

The Balkh Legends emerged as the Winners of the Afghanistan Premier League 2018

One of the major milestones for Afghanistan cricket came with the inaugural edition of the Afghanistan Premier League which took place in the United Arab Emirates. A country which, less than 10 years ago, had received its status as an ODI nation was now organizing a global T20 event. This speaks volumes of the development of Afghanistan cricket in such a short span of time.

The Afghanistan Premier League was organized by the Afghanistan Cricket Board from the 5th to 21st of October, 2018. It comprised of 5 teams which were as follows:

1.     Balkh Legends - coached by Simon Helmot and captained by Mohammad Nabi

2.     Kabul Zwanan – coached by Heath Streak and captained by Rashid Khan

3.     Kandahar Knights - coached by Kabir Ali and captained by Asghar Afghan

4.     Nangarhar Leopards - coached by Venkatesh Prasad and captained by Ben Cutting

5.     Paktia Panthers - coached by Dawlat Ahmadzai and captained by Mohammad Shahzad

The inaugural editions comprised of stars like Chris Gayle, Shahid Afridi, and Brendon McCullum. The tournament also witnessed 6 sixes in an over. Haratullah Zazai of Kabul Zwanan smashed 6 sixes off Abdullah Mazari. With these 6 sixes, he even equalled the record for the fastest T20 fifty which came off just 12 balls. He also ended as the second highest run-getter in the tournament with 322 runs.

The tournament was won by the Balkh Legends captained by Mohammad Nabi who dominated the entire tournament with 6 wins off 8 games. They beat the Kabul Zwanan by 4 wickets to lift the trophy.

Mohammad Shahzad the explosive opener of the Afghanistan team ended up as the highest run-getter with 344 runs at an average of 43. The Sri Lankan, Isuru Udana of Paktia Panthers ended as the highest wicket-taker of the tournament with 17 wickets.