By Dileep Premachandran
The cruel realities of adulthood have a way of destroying your faith in the fairytales you so loved as a child. On Thursday morning, as Afghanistan made the transition from cricket’s Cinderella story to the Promised Land of Test cricket, they were greeted with a bucket of cold water, smack in the face. Cinderella’s grand carriage turned out to be a pumpkin, and Shikhar Dhawan’s bat smashed it to pulp.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) gets a lot of criticism for the actions of its officials, but on this occasion, they struck just the right note by inviting Salim Durani to meet the visiting side. Born in Kabul in the early years of Zahir Shah’s rule, Durani played 29 Tests for India from 1960 to 1973, playing a big part in a historic first Test win in the West Indies in 1971.
Former #TeamIndia all-rounder and the only Indian Test cricketer to be born in Afghanistan, Salim Durani arrives at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium along with BCCI Acting Hon. Secretary Mr. Amitabh Choudhary.#INDvAFG pic.twitter.com/Y6p12Qve2C
— BCCI (@BCCI) June 14, 2018
At the time, Afghanistan weren’t even a blot on the cricket landscape. The early lessons were all imbibed by those in the refugee camps just inside the Pakistan border, as two generations struggled to recover from the war against the Soviet Union and the civil strife that followed.
Pakistan, until diplomatic relations took a turn for the worse half a decade ago, were the main backers for Afghan cricket, providing coaches, training facilities and even participation in their domestic tournaments. When Taj Malik, the coach who had set up an Afghan team and taken them to victory in the World Cricket League Division Five (2008), was sacked soon after, it was Kabir Khan, a former Pakistan player, who took charge.
By then, however, the raw talent was already in evidence. In March 2006, a day after the conclusion of the India-England Test series, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC)—once cricket’s preeminent authority—played an Afghan selection at the Police Gymkhana in Mumbai. This writer was there, to report on what the British saw as the newest chapter in what used to be The Great Game.
The Afghan players did everything at full throttle. Mohammad Nabi, in his early 20s then, smashed a hundred that included several sixes on to the Western Railway tracks. Hasti Gul bowled fast, and the others around them didn’t seem to lack confidence either. An MCC side mainly comprising players with Minor Counties experience, and led by Mike Gatting, former England captain, were routed.
Self-doubt wasn’t part of the Afghan make-up as they made their way up the ladder, often skipping two or three rungs at a time. By 2010, they had made to the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, where Hamid Hassan’s fiery pace bowling impressed everyone watching. Half a decade later, they qualified for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
At a pre-tournament media briefing in Adelaide, the four players that fronted up were so relaxed and confident that you’d never have guessed they hadn’t played at that level before. They spoke of the players they admired and wanted to emulate—the portly Mohammad Shahzad, who keeps wicket in the limited-overs formats, is a huge fan of M.S. Dhoni—but made it clear they weren’t intimidated by anyone.
A few days later, they played their first game at the Manuka Oval in Canberra. Thousands of Bangladeshi fans cranked up the noise in their tiger stripes, but the smaller Afghan contingent responded with drumbeats and raucous chants. The quiet suburb of Australia’s sleepy capital city had never seen anything like it.
Along the way, a generation of players was phased out as well. Nawroz Mangal, who led them in the early years in the ICC tournaments, retired in January 2017, while Hassan, whose dynamic bowling style left him susceptible to injury, hasn’t played in two years. These days, the headlines are all about Rashid Khan, the teenager whose exploits in the Twenty20 arena have done so much to raise Afghan cricket’s profile.
Rashid is at the forefront of a generation that has taken to cricket in droves, despite the precarious political situation back home. As his miserly bowling was inspiring Sunrisers Hyderabad towards a second Indian Premier League (IPL) final in three seasons, a bomb went off during an exhibition game in Nangarhar Province where he hails from. Eight people were killed and dozens injured. Video footage of Karim Sadiq, once a stalwart of the national team, carrying the injured to safety, went viral. A broken Rashid dedicated a subsequent man-of-the-match award to victims of the atrocity.
Once the bond with Pakistan frayed, India acted quickly, with Anurag Thakur, then president of the BCCI, offering use of the stadium in Greater Noida. That was in 2015 and two years later, the International Cricket Council granted Afghanistan and Ireland Test status, cricket’s way of telling a country that it’s now part of a small and charmed circle.
The Afghans, who have qualified for the 2019 World Cup as well, are now a genuine threat to more established nations in the Twenty20 and 50-over formats. But Test cricket is a game of patience and discipline, and despite pre-match bluster from Asghar Stanikzai, the captain, about not knowing what ‘nervous’ meant, the Afghans’ lack of experience was badly exposed in an opening session where Dhawan became only the sixth man to score a century before lunch.
The roly-poly Shahzad tried to gee up his teammates from slip, but a couple of heart-in-mouth moments aside, the two Indian batsmen picked off runs at will. So harshly was Rashid treated that his bowling figures made it look like he was still playing T20. By the time Yamin Hamidzai picked up their first wicket, soon after lunch, the celebrations spoke more of relief than euphoria.
As far as the big picture goes though, this harsh baptism doesn’t matter. A decade ago, they were edging out Jersey to win Division 5. Jersey now play in Division Four. Afghanistan, without anything like the same facilities in their own country, are mixing it with the big boys. There will be better days.
Dileep Premachandran is a sports columnist for News18, The Independent, Mint Lounge and Arab News. He was formerly editor-in-chief of Wisden India.
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