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The Cinderella Team

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On the 23rd of May 2008, in the cricketing backwaters of Jersey, started one of the most inspiring and incredible underdog stories in cricket. Twelve teams had gathered in the Channel Islands to participate in the World Cricket League Division 5, along with cricketing ‘powerhouses’ like Norway, Japan, Botswana and Vanuatu. Among them was a team from an impoverished country that was ravaged by long civil and international wars. You could say they were quite confident about th
eir chances when their coach, Taj Malik, said “I will throw myself in the Atlantic if we lose”. Yep. We are talking about Afghanistan.

We are talking about a team that had made grandiose statements prior to the tournament about their dreams of playing against teams like India and South Africa in the near future. Well, we are talking about the team that lived up to that word.

The team reached the semifinals in style, shooting down Botswana, Japan and Bahamas on the way. They beat Nepal in the low scoring Semis by 37 runs and met the home team, Jersey, in the finals. They were reduced to 62/8 against a target of 80 before a determined Hasti Gul saw them home and earned them the title.

This unprecedented success was well received in Afghanistan. Every player received a hero’s welcome and they were received by the President of their nation, Hamid Karzai. He wanted the BMW rule explained to him (Of course, that was LBW, but hey, that’s a start!) This has been the story with many countries in the past and the dream-run would normally end there. However, for Afghanistan, this was just the beginning of a fairy tale.

The next stop was the WCL Division 4 in Tanzania. The competition was much stiffer there, with slightly more established countries like Fiji, Italy and Hong Kong being a part of it. There was one aspect about Afghanistan that turned heads at this tourney…the stronger the opposition, the better the team played.

The Afghan team dominated the tournament winning every match. Apart from a closely contested match against the host team (Tanzania), all other matches were one sided affairs with Afghanistan comfortably defeating teams like Italy and Hong Kong, who were considered easy favourites for these encounters. The fairy tale continued, with Afghanistan easily passing the second hurdle on their way to the World Cup.

A sterner test awaited them at the home of Latin American Cricket, the Belgrano Athletic Club Ground in Buenos Aires. People considered Afghanistan lucky to reach this level, but then, they had learnt their lesson. All of them were scared to write them off completely. Several fans of cricket thought it would be fantastic for Afghanistan to prove a point or two here, but realistically, they were competing against associate nations who, although not well known, had better funding, structure and much more experience of playing in International Tournaments like the ICC Trophy, while Afghanistan had none of this luxury. We were calling them the Cinderella team, yes.

All laws of logic, doubters and critics were proved wrong in that tournament, with the team continuing their winning streak through the tournament, with a solitary, close loss against Uganda. No finals were held in that tournament due to inclement weather and hence, both Afghanistan and Uganda were promoted to the ICC World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa.

This was it, the final hurdle, the tournament that could bring the dreams of the team and those of the millions of their supporters into fruition. Afghanistan had reached the stage where the big boys play (well, almost). Afghanistan would be playing against teams that have played against and defeated some of the finest teams in world cricket.

Prior to their meteoric rise, many had dismissed the statements coming from the Afghan camp as mere hyperbole, but now every eye in the cricketing world took notice of their story. And for once, after coming through all these divisions at such a menacing speed, some results were expected from them.

In a difficult group, with three ODI nations (Kenya, Netherlands & Bermuda), Afghanistan faced their greatest challenge yet. Their inexperience did not seem to matter after comprehensive victories against Denmark and Bermuda (who eventually lost their ODI status in that tournament)

When there’s a Cinderella, definitely, her step-mom wouldn’t be far behind. Their wake-up call from the dream run came when they were routed by Kenya, Netherlands and UAE. The hopelessness of Bermuda (who won only one match) and Denmark (who won none) proved to be their savior; Afghanistan progressed to the super eights hanging on to a thread.

With the stakes being really high, Afghanistan showed that they really belong at the International Stage, defeating Ireland by 22 runs, Scotland by 42 runs and Namibia by 21 runs. Yes, their dream run had started again. Unfortunately they suffered a defeat against Canada; that combined with their relatively poor showing in the group stage ensured that Afghanistan did not get the points required to reach the top four that would have got them an entry into the ODI WC 2011.

However, it was not all bad as they had enough points to be among the top six nations, which meant that Afghanistan would be recognized as an ODI nation and that they would be playing regular cricket against five other ODI nations. That also meant that they qualified for the Intercontinental Cup, and they would receive a windfall from the ICC.

Afghanistan’s first ODI was in the World cup qualifiers itself when they played against Scotland for the 5th place play-off. They won comfortably by 86 runs starting their ODI era with a bang. Their next fixture in August 2009 was when they toured Zimbabwe for their first Intercontinental cup fixture. Although Afghanistan had a few home and away tours against the MCC and local Pakistani sides, they did not have much experience in the longer version of the game. However, Afghanistan performed admirably and managed a comfortable draw against the Tatenda Taibu led side.

Two weeks later, they were off to Netherlands for a two ODI series and an Intercontinental Cup fixture. They won one of the two matches, riding on a maiden ODI century from wicket-keeper Mohammed Shahzad giving them a comfortable six-wicket victory. This was preceded by their first Intercontinental Cup / first-class victory, a thrilling low scoring encounter where Afghanistan won by 1 wicket.

Afghanistan also won their “home” fixtures in Dambulla and Sharjah against Ireland and Canada (They chased 494 in the fourth innings to defeat Canada, if you would be so curious) and currently, they lead the Intercontinental Cup Points Table comfortably.

Afghanistan were expected to reach higher levels soon, but how soon? Surely there was nowhere they could make a name for themselves before the 2015 world cup!

Wrong again.

They won the World T20 Qualifier tournament this February and qualified for the T20 world cup in the West Indies, again in royal style. Afghanistan displayed their brilliance in all forms of the game. They won all their group matches against the likes of Ireland, USA and Scotland, batting first in all 3 matches, getting 130-ish totals, and winning by margins of 13, 14 and 29 runs respectively. They comfortably qualified for the super 4’s, where they lost a match against Netherlands but defeated UAE to progress to the finals.

They had automatically qualified for the T20 world cup by then, but that made no difference to their hunger to win. On the 13th of Feb 2010, Afghanistan lost the toss in the finals and Ireland batted first (breaking Afghans’ luck?). A wonderful bowling performance from the Afghan skipper, Nowroz Mangal, restricted Ireland to 142/8, leaving Afghanistan with not a lot to chase. They efficiently chased the total with 15 balls to spare thanks to an unbeaten fifty from Mohammad Shahzad adding another feather to their already over-stuffed cap.

Any team can repeat all these scores in the future but I doubt if it will be an impact of the same magnitude. Why is that?

  • Afghanistan has no home-ground; all their home fixtures are being played at Sharjah.
  • The game of Cricket was banned by the Taliban up until 2001, when Afghanistan became a member of the ICC. Their cricket team was formed much after that.
  • The team is composed mostly of refugees who live in Pakistan; many players in the squad still live in refugee camps.
  • Prior to their fairy tale, Afghan cricket was mostly against a few MCC touring sides and a few local Pakistani sides.
  • Afghanistan is still an affiliate nation, which means that they don’t have an established or organized Cricket body or a domestic cricket structure.

Afghanistan’s star bowler Hamid Hassan has compared his team to the movie “Rocky”, and it is not hard to see why; but what can they do at the Caribbean against two cricketing giants in India and South Africa? Whichever way this turns out, we request you to look out and cheer for Rocky against the Ivan Dragos and the Apollo Creeds.

It's the Cinderella team after all.



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