Afghanistan bid farewell to the four-day format last weekend but the fact they can now look forward to playing Tests from next year, shows how far the country has come since they found its love for cricket in the 1990s.
Back then, there were no proper pitches, wickets or even kits and gloves to wear for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. But their sheer passion for the game was enough to draw a lot of interest, leading the way for the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now known as the Afghanistan Cricket Board) to be formed in 1995.
The cricketing fever continued even when they returned home before leaving the country again when the US’ invasion to the 9/11 attacks brought another war to the country. But their most significant step came from the Taliban when they officially authorised cricket to be played in the country.
The only way has been up since then and fast forward to today and their national team is now a full member of the ICC after being voted alongside Ireland in June’s board meeting in London.
Lalchand Rajput, head coach at the time, remembers the day clearly when he heard the news.
“I was in Mumbai on the day and once I heard we have been included, I was really happy. I was sending messages to the players and speaking on the phone to them,” he told Sport360 from India.
“The last couple of years, we did so well that it would’ve been difficult for the ICC to say no.”
Indeed, it would have been very harsh for the sport’s governing body to refuse Afghanistan based on their records on the field.
Their story has been nothing short than a fairytale and had already made gigantic strides.
— Denzil M Pinto (@denz_360) December 2, 2017
The signs were already there when they were crowned champions of the World Cricket League Championship in Division Three, Four and Five, while finishing third place in Division One in 2010. A season later, they finished runners-up to Ireland in the Championship competition.
That saw them become an Associate side in 2013 and having impressed at that level, it was only a matter of time before they would reach the biggest stage. That came in 2010, with a group stage exit at the World T20 in West Indies before repeating the feat in 2012 and 2014.
In the 2016 edition in India, they suffered a Super 10 exit but bowed out with their first-ever win over the eventual champions West Indies. It was their first triumph over a Test nation other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.
Their other biggest highlights so far is a maiden World Cup in 2015 in Australia and New Zealand as well as 1-1 draw against West Indies in the Caribbean in June.
Their ICC Intercontinental Cup 10-wicket victory against the UAE in Abu Dhabi last Saturday, which saw them regain their title for the second time, was their final four-day match before entering the Test arena in 2018 where even greater tests lie await against the elite.
For former captain Mohammad Nabi, who along with star leg-spinner Rashid Khan made history by becoming the first two Afghans to play in the IPL this year, has seen the ups and downs of the remarkable journey.
The 32-year-old moved to Pakistan with his family to seek a safe haven from the Soviet War and recalls it wasn’t an easy beginning at all to reach this stage.
“You can say that I and a lot of my team-mates have struggled a lot to reach to this level,” he told Sport360.
“To have been awarded Test status, I was very happy because it has been a long journey from the very first step of seeing the game played in Pakistan to how it is now. We struggled a lot back home but now it’s paying off because it shows that we have the talent,” added Nabi, who once played for the MCC.
Rajput had only been in charge of the national team for just over a year before being replaced in August. By that time, everything was in place for the team to succeed, yet was reminded on how far his players went to, to reach this stage.
“That’s why they are tough cricketers because they have really come up the hard way and their country was a war-torn country,” he said.
“They told me one day that they had come to Mumbai in 2004 or 2005 for a competition, and they said they only had 100 dollars among the 15 players. They could just about eat something with that money. They said they were so passionate about this game that they wanted to win and climb up the ladder. They were hungry for success.”
The ACB’s vision and ambitions in promoting the game from grassroots level has been a major factor for the country’s success.
Last month, they were crowned Asian U-19 champions after thrashing Pakistan by 185 runs in Malaysia, while their domestic competitions include a first-class four-day tournament), a 50-over List A event and a recognised Twenty20 league.
“The ACB have one goal and that is to make a big impact in cricket,” said Rajput. “The ACB are doing a great job right from the grassroots level. They have provided the facilities with an indoor academy, gym, their own ground in Kabul and continue to increase and develop the infrastructure.
“This helps more people to be drawn in. So with those things taken care off, the players can focus their minds on the field.”
Due to security in their homeland, the team has been forced to play their ‘home’ games either in Sharjah or India’s Greater Noida.
The closest Afghans have seen foreign players on home soil is during the Shpageeza Cricket League, their annual T20 domestic competition.
That was in the spotlight but for non-cricketing matters in September when three people were killed during a suicide bombing between Boost Defenders and Mis Ainak Knights match in in Kabul.
As the teams were not on the field, no players were injured including Nabi, skipper of Mis Ainak Knights.
“I wasn’t that much scared as it was a small blast,” he said. “For me it was normal. You can understand why the foreign players were scared. But it was great to see the players stay in Afghanistan and support Afghanistan cricket and I’m very thankful to them.”
Nabi remains hopeful there could be a day when they can play on home soil just like how Pakistan is trying to revive international cricket following the 2009 attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus.
“If you see last month, we had that Afghanistan Sixes tournament and there were a lot of foreign players playing in that. They enjoyed it very well and there are a lot of passionate cricket fans in Afghanistan. It shows that they want a piece of international games and we want to play those at home.”
For now, the main focus for 2018 is continuing their surge in Tests and prove the ICC’s decision was no mistake whenever they play their match.
Skipper Asghar Stanikzai said: “Playing a new format in Tests is going to be nervous. We know what to embrace for and how much we need to prepare mentally and physically. We are working on those areas and want to show everyone that we deserved to get that Test status.”
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