World Cup 2019: Take a Bow Afghanistan, India Won the Match, But You Won the Day

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World Cup 2019: Take a Bow Afghanistan, India Won the Match, But You Won the Day

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

There are about nine overs to play, and Afghanistan is just 60 runs away from victory. They still have five wickets in hand. It is a situation ripe for a win. Usually. But not in this case. For one, the Afghans are playing India – a team that is increasingly everyone’s favourite for the World Cup, unbeaten until now, and a side that leaves the opposition overawed merely on the basis of its reputation these days.

But equally important is the state in which Afghanistan finds itself. This was a tournament where more was expected of the Afghanis and they had disappointed. Until Saturday, anyway. Murmurs before the tournament grew into a full-scale crisis as the captain was changed, internal discord came out in the open, and public recriminations followed. The problems would stymie stronger teams and Afghanistan is not even considered among the major cricket-playing nations – even though there are not many like them. It continues to be seen as a “minnow”, a team that is allowed into the World Cup to just add a bit of colour.

With the match in the balance, the commentators, Sanjay Manjrekar and Rameez Raja, are humming the notes of India’s invincibility. The story according to them is that the mighty Indian team is on the verge of another victory. Afghanistan’s role, in their view, is merely to provide a test before India goes on to face more important assignments. It is offensive but not a surprise. After all, when the World Cup is organised to secure the best interests of the richest boards everyone else appears to be an afterthought.

But of course that is not entirely the case. Or it should not be. Afghanistan is a Test cricket side now and a few of its players are stars in various T20 leagues across the world. Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi are recognisable names and the sight of them is a veritable threat for most teams. Yet one cannot really overlook their economic troubles, nor the violence and depredation that the Afghani players have lived, experienced, and fought away.

The story of Afghanistan cricket, of its emergence from the ashes, has been told multiple times. And yet, its power to amaze and shock never really goes away. It carries the hint of its distinctive appeal on the cricket field, clues that are dropped along the way. This is not your high-functioning, mechanised, professional sports team.

The difference was borne out eventually but not before some hefty odds had been mocked by Afghanistan.

Image Credits: Getty Images

Examples abound. Mohammad Shahzad was ruled out of this World Cup after two games, whether due to an injury or factionalism nobody has confirmed, but he remains one of the team’s star lights. Shahzad is the kind of physical specimen we rarely find in international cricket now, a burly wicketkeeper who can smack the ball. He would probably not make any other team in this World Cup on account of his weight issues, but they have not held him back as a cricketer.

Shahzad’s replacement, 18-year-old Ikram Ali Khil, is a throwback to another time too. Khil is a reminder of the status of wicketkeepers before Adam Gilchrist came along. He’s a player who is in the team for his ability with the gloves and not the bat, an anachronism wiped out from more established teams. Furthermore, Afghanistan’s fielding standards are not the best, the bouncer fazes their batsman, and their pacers are not really blessed with, well, pace.

While the West Indies and Sri Lanka have fallen on hard times after an illustrious past, Afghanistan is still imagining its own story.

But Afghanistan has three spinners in Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, and Mujeeb Ur Rahman who can hold their own against the world’s best, as they showed against India by restricting the batsmen. Not to mention their own batsmen like Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi who provide solidity to the side, and they briefly led the charge on Saturday in Southampton.

That this bunch was up against the leader supreme in cricket, you would not have known if you went only by the proceedings on the field. The difference was borne out eventually but not before some hefty odds had been mocked by Afghanistan. Just look at the nature of the beast it was up against.

Indian batsmen do not just bring their heavy run-making to the pitch, but their hefty reputations too. Their big endorsements and their larger-than-life status. And that is the case even before you mention Virat Kohli. There’s more. In Jasprit Bumrah, India has a once-in-a-generation pace bowler while Kuldeep Yadav is still a mystery to many batsmen despite spinning webs for a few years now. Then there is India’s massive resource and talent pool, the richest cricket board, the IPL. To call it a mismatch would be to brush the issue under the carpet.

So rich is the Board of Control for Cricket in India that Afghanistan is one of its beneficiaries, with Dehradun serving as its home ground and its players able to train in multiple facilities across India. The neighbour’s helping hand has been crucial in Afghanistan’s rise. And here were Afghanistan, on the verge of victory against that very team. But nobody really believed.

With good reason, they will tell you. Eventually, India’s nous helped the Men in Blue win out. That Afghanistan nearly overcame the odds listed above was lost on many. The post-match reactions picked a different song. The commentators, Manjrekar and Rameez, sound relieved that India won while the BCCI Twitter handle chose to say that Afghanistan was “thumped” – a tweet it later deleted.

But the response to the hard-fought, memorable encounter summed up the esteem in which the Afghan side is held today. Its players are celebrated, branded as heroes when they turn out for their respective IPL sides. The franchise teams speak proudly of their role in helping the Afghan cricketers find their moment under the sun. In the World Cup, the presence of Afghanistan is even welcomed. But when the upstart tries to upset the status quo, it is branded a minor irritant. Not a surprise when you consider the World Cup, in its current form, is a tournament informed by a drive to protect the interests of the powerful sides – namely, India, Australia, and England.

Yet, they cannot do without the underdogs. In a World Cup shorn of interesting narratives, it was the challenge put forward by Sri Lanka the day before and Afghanistan on Saturday that lit up the tournament. West Indies went on to extend the trend of weaker teams punching above their weight a few hours later. While the West Indies and Sri Lanka have fallen on hard times after an illustrious past, Afghanistan is still imagining its own story. A story that captivates us, in spite of the cricket establishment trying to deflect our attention. As we were reminded on Saturday, the men in blue and red are still dreaming and soaring.

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