Home | Opinions | Social | Sport | The promise of cricket’s Afghan spring

The promise of cricket’s Afghan spring

Font size: Decrease font Enlarge font
The promise of cricket’s Afghan spring

More games against the ICC’s Test teams are needed if cricket has to grow in Associate member countries like Afghanistan.

 When they returned home from the ICC World T20 on Tuesday, Afghanistan’s cricketers were welcomed like heroes. In Kabul, large crowds gathered at the airport and along the city’s streets, waving flags, cheering and dancing. “The whole country has united behind these players,” says former India all-rounder Manoj Prabhakar, now Afghanistan’s bowling coach. “Everyone has been swept up in the excitement.”

After three narrow losses in the Super 10 stage of the World T20, Afghanistan defeated the West Indies by six runs in Nagpur on Easter Sunday. It was the nation’s first victory in international cricket over a major team, a Test-playing side other than Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
Cricket has been popular for some time in Afghanistan. Its captain Asghar Stanikzai remarked two weeks ago in Kolkata that cricket is the number one sport in his country. In Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts, published last year, Tim Wigmore writes of the celebrations following Afghanistan’s qualification for the 2015 World Cup. “One of the army commanders came to congratulate the team,” he quotes Dr. Noor Muhammad, the then chief executive of the Afghan Cricket Board, as saying. “He told me that it was the first time that both the Taliban side and our side were shooting, but not at each other. There was shooting in the air to celebrate the success of the Afghanistan national team.”
But Afghanistan’s performance at the 2016 World T20 is more than just a heart-warming tale of plucky men from a troubled land; nor is it just about the win over the West Indies, an opponent that may be accused of having taken its foot off the gas at that stage. Stanikzai’s side ran Sri Lanka and England close — and with a little more refinement could have beaten both — and delivered South Africa a brief but definite scare. For a cricket team that played its first international tournament only in 2004 (the ACC Trophy in Malaysia), this is development at breakneck speed.
Last month in India, the Afghans played cricket that was at times brilliant — Stanikzai’s half-century against Sri Lanka and Mohammad Shahzad’s unrestrained assault on South Africa — but there was a method, a plan to things, even if the fielding was a little shabby.
“Earlier, they used to play for fun,” says Prabhakar. “They were not answerable for their performances. Now they have become answerable. Inzamam-ul-Haq, the coach, and I wanted to ensure that.”
Late last year, the Afghanistan team shifted base to Noida after signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex is the team’s ‘home ground’ now; Prabhakar believes it is the start of something good.
One of the International Cricket Council (ICC)’s 38 associate members, Afghanistan has done well to get this far, but more games against the ICC’s 10 Full Member (Test-playing) teams are essential if it has to grow further. How this will be achieved is the big question. It is a question that hangs over Associate cricket as a whole. Since its first limited-overs international in April 2009, Afghanistan has played only 18 more against the “top eight”. And only six of those games have come outside World Cups and World T20s. 
“They haven’t got that many opportunities to play against big teams,” Inzamam said in Nagpur. “But they have talent, passion… everything.”
Indeed, the format of the World T20 itself was not kind to Associate teams, who, after having played six matches in the Qualifier tournament last year, had to compete in the ‘First Round’ here for the two spots in the Super 10. In the case of the Netherlands, a year’s hard work was rendered meaningless after an eight-run defeat to Bangladesh and the abandonment of its second fixture. “We’ve got two more one-day games against Nepal in the World Cricket League and one more four-day game against Afghanistan,” a crestfallen captain, Peter Borren, said later. “That is pretty much the schedule for the rest of the year. It’s three more games this year, which is Associate cricket in a nutshell.”
Preston Mommsen, the Scotland captain, made a similar plea for more exposure. “Since the 2015 World Cup I have played in one ODI match… in 12 months,” he said after defeat to Zimbabwe. “So, you tell me how I’m going to improve my skills and develop as a cricketer.”
There are commercial considerations here, and it is not easy to get the world’s top sides, groaning under the weight of too much cricket already, to squeeze more into their calendars. It is also worthwhile to ask how much public interest there would be in a full-fledged series between, say, Australia and Scotland. Associate teams are expected to dominate competitions at their level first as Afghanistan did this last winter, winning 10 of 14 limited-overs encounters with Zimbabwe. (The failure to qualify for the main draw of the Asia Cup may be regarded as a blip.) A first step could be for Associate sides to play reserve teams of major nations on a regular basis (and not occasionally).
But cricket risks stunting its own growth if an effort is not made to spread the game wider and deeper. The 2007 World Cup had 16 teams; 2011 and 2015 had 14; the next edition is slated to have 10. 
The World T20, thus far a biennial event, will hereafter be staged once every four years. There is an argument to be made for restricting an elite competition to the best sides, but in the absence of much bilateral cricket between Associate and top Full Member teams, such news is disheartening.
Last year, Japan produced one of the greatest upsets in rugby history after stunning South Africa at the World Cup. 
The presence of the Japanese side had an undeniably uplifting effect on the tournament.
Afghanistan’s players have accomplished something similar here, endearing themselves to Indian crowds with their earnestness and free-spirited nature. 
Cricket cannot afford to shut the door on them; it cannot afford to go stale. 
       Shteedutta Chidananda, The Hindu