This is how good the World Cup could be
When Asghar Stanikzai visualised his role in his country's World Cup debut, I doubt it would have involved trudging back to the pavilion with the scoreboard reading 3 for 3 after three overs. Nor would legspinner Samiullah Shenwari have seen himself being ejected from the attack for following through onto the pitch after just seven balls, unless he had been treating himself to a nightcap of some extremely unpasteurised cheese. Such is the cruel hand of sporting fate, which dashes far more dreams than it makes, and is one of the least reliable scripters of Hollywood feel-good movies.
"You have not seen Afghanistan play yet," coach Andy Moles said afterwards. He was lying. Perhaps not intentionally, and you could understand what he meant after a disappointingly conclusive defeat. But he was lying. We saw Afghanistan play for the 50 overs of Bangladesh's innings, and they were largely excellent, occasionally magnificent, especially in the first 30 overs, when their pace attack restrained and then shuddered Bangladesh.
Hamid Hassan, pacey, hostile, with the shoulders of a champion, and, most importantly, headbanded like a fast bowler should be, was denied his nation's first World Cup wicket by an umpiring blooper and an understandable reluctance to risk his team's only review in the third over of the innings. Shapoor Zadran, the gargantuan left-armer with the epic run-up, was dangerous and awkward. Then medium pacer Mirwais Ashraf, with his admirable pate, induced an edge from Tamim, caught by the outstanding wicketkeeper Afsar Zazai, leaping balletically to his left like a young Olga Korbut diving out of bed to whack her snooze alarm, then trapped Anamul leg before. Shapoor struck twice, and Bangladesh were 119 for 4 in the 30th over.
With Hamid's headband, Shapoor's distance sprint to the wicket, and Mirwais' shining scalp, Afghanistan almost have a composite Dennis Lillee of a pace attack, requiring only an angry moustache and accompanying short-form vocabulary.
Shapoor is one of this World Cup's most glorious sights. Not for him the scientific homogeneity of a biometrically precise fifteen-to-twenty-yard gathering to the crease. Shapoor bowls off a proper, old-school, certifiable fast-bowler's run-up, a 40-yard gallumph of unmistakable cricketing pugilism, hair flapping behind him in a resplendent tonsorial semaphore that screams "I mean business", culminating after more than 25 power-bustling strides of varying lengths with a leaping, ground-shaking, full-body hurl.
Who knows if this is the most productive way for Shapoor to bowl? Who cares? He is a swashbuckling throwback to a time before the controlled coaching of maximum efficiency, an anti-Woakes in an age of precision honing. He also, more importantly, bowled superbly, taking 2 for 20 off 7 overs, spearing in yorkers, hurrying batsmen with awkward bounce, fire and angles, giving his team parity before Shakib and Mushfiqur applied 280 ODIs' worth of experience to turn the game Bangladesh's way, before Mashrafe and Rubel scuppered the Afghan reply and broke Asghar's dream of a match-winning 17-ball century.
So it is that, of the 13 non-Test nations to have played in the World Cup, only Zimbabwe have won their debut match; Ireland tied on their maiden appearance (against Zimbabwe in 2007), and the other 11 have all lost, from Sri Lanka and East Africa in 1975, to Afghanistan, all by margins ranging from decisive to obliterative. (South Africa are the only team apart from Zimbabwe to have won their first World Cup match since the inaugural tournament in 1975.)
Who knows when another cricketing nation will make its World Cup debut? Afghanistan were the first to do since Bermuda and Ireland in 2007, and the chances of a newcomer claiming one of the two qualifying places up for grabs in 2019 and 2023 are remote, unless Monaco starts attracting cricketers like it does tax-allergic Formula One drivers. Or unless the ICC changes its bafflingly insular 10-team format for forthcoming World Cups.
Within those three opening overs of Afghanistan's reply, the game was decided, but there was more than enough in the debutants' performance to suggest that, if the World Cup insists on constricting itself to 10 teams, this sport will be making one of the gravest and most avoidable errors in its history. It will be turning its back on its own future, snuffing out its own evolving narratives before they come close to fruition, coating one foot in a golden ski-boot whilst unloading a pistol into the other.
If that format is persisted with, cricket will have failed. Frankly, given their remarkable curve of progress and passion for the game, if Afghanistan have not played a Test match within 10 years, cricket will have failed. Canberra played host to another vibrant occasion that demonstrated how good a Cricket World Cup could be. If cricket ignores the evidence it is laying before itself, it will have proved itself to be an idiot.
Hamid should have further cemented his place in Afghan cricketing history as his nation's first World Cup wicket-taker, when Tamim edged a drive to the wicketkeeper which went undetected by the not-quite-all-seeing eye of umpire Steve Davis. Had there been two DRS reviews available in each innings, Afghanistan would almost certainly have reviewed it.
Why there is only one review per innings in ODI cricket, when there are two per 80 overs in Tests, is one of the many logical quirks that cricket's administrators seem to hold unfathomably dear.
Since ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball records began, bowlers have taken a wicket every 40 balls in ODIs, and every 70 balls in the first 80 overs of Test innings. This equates roughly to 7.5 bowler's wickets in the average 50-over ODI innings, and 6.9 in the first 80 overs of Tests.
Assuming there are a proportionate number of appeals and assorted near-wicket-incidents in both formats, then, logically, you would assume that there would be the same number of referrals available for an ODI side as in the first 80 overs of a Test innings; particularly as a team with only one referral at its disposal is less likely to use its one review than a Test team is to use its two, knowing they will be replenished after 80 overs.
The equipment is there, but is only being partially utilised. If the reason for only having one review is to accelerate the game, then perhaps we should consider some of the approximately 100 other means of speeding up play, ranging from asking umpires to move at something more than a geriatric dawdle, to not having 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th men scuttling on the field in brightly coloured bibs every time one of their team-mates needs a drink, smile, cuddle or update on an eBay auction.
And finally, a couple of stats:
- Bangladesh became the second team in World Cup history to see its top four all reach 15, without any of them going on to post 30. The previous side to do so - Bangladesh, in 2007. It was the 8th time this has happened in all ODI cricket.
- Afghanistan made cricket history in more ways than one. They became the first team to lose both openers for 1 when chasing in a World Cup match. And the first team to lose three of its top four for 1 in any ODI.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer