"Afghanistan are doing well. I don't know why we are only focusing on Pakistan. Afghanistan are also a force to reckon with."
This was Rahul Dravid speaking a few days ago at an event in Delhi, more than 2000 kilometres from Dubai, when asked about the India-Pakistan rivalry. An Afghanistan media outlet picked up the quote and it went viral immediately, even splashing itself on whatsapp timelines of the players who were preparing to play India on Tuesday. The Afghanistan players use social media to keep track of developments back home. So when they received an endorsement from Dravid, it was the ultimate reinforcement of confidence and positivity.
As such, they didn't need any more motivation, even though the game was a dead rubber. They had lost heartbreakingly in the final over to both Pakistan and Bangladesh, so this was another chance to use that experience and get over the line. This time, Rashid Khan, their premier spinner, was held back to bowl the final over, and he defended six to force a tie.
MS Dhoni, India's stand-in captain, may have equated the result to a 'handicap in golf' - referring to Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar's rest - but for Asghar Afghan, the Afghanistan captain, this was their "best ODI result of 2018".
"I was sure we'll play in the final. I knew the conditions in Dubai were suitable for us, because the amount of cricket we've played here. For us the hard luck was all our matches were in Abu Dhabi," Afghan said with a sheepish smile, before wondering if he had entered the 'poor scheduling, why us?' territory. "If it was on this track, I can tell with confirmation that Afghanistan would've been in the final. Hamare saath thodi bewafayi hui hai (This was unfair to us)."
Only three nights ago against Pakistan, Afghan watched young Aftab Alam sit on his haunches and sob after failing to defend nine off the final over. While there was momentary disappointment, they returned to train next afternoon, the long drive back to Dubai from Abu Dhabi notwithstanding.
As shattering as it may have been to the team, their coach Phil Simmons was gladdened by the fact that they had put behind the loss so quickly. So even before they took the field on Tuesday against India, Simmons had already identified their biggest takeaway: the hunger to win.
He has repeatedly stressed upon his young team the need to move on from their 'they-will-learn-and-grow-with-exposure' narrative. He wants them to now start challenging teams across conditions. "The first sign of change in attitude came after our inaugural Test," Simmons said. "When you saw them come out of the Test looking inward and what they needed to do to improve every game, you knew there were positives even in defeat.
"I'm just trying to make sure everything gets to the level of the bigger nations. We want to beat the bigger teams, that's how we improve. At the end of the day, winning is important to me. These guys are playing Tests, they know that once they cross the rope, every single time they have to perform. That's something that has to [be] worked on. That's something we've to be consistent with."
A lot has to do with the mindset of the players. Simmons believes they're now starting to think like winners. Afghan, meanwhile, believes the spin-off effects of having the likes of Rashid, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Mohammad Nabi playing in different leagues around the world is starting to show.
"I think the leagues were very important for our players. Few of our guys have played different leagues and sharing dressing room with experienced international players has helped," Afghan started in Pashto before expressing his thoughts freely in Urdu. "They're bringing back those experiences and sharing it in our dressing room. Cricket is the same, it's just about the psychological thinking - where do I stand? When you play at the elite level and bring back that experience, your level goes up. This change in thinking has reflected positively."
This change in belief and thinking hasn't come overnight. Life hasn't been the same since they were nearly shunned out of the World Cup Qualifiers following back-to-back losses to Scotland, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong. Not even their optimistic home fans believed it was possible when they had to not just win every game from there but also hope for several results to go their way for the stars to align. It happened. That confidence has now rubbed off on the players.
"For the kind of bowlers we have, the wicket in Abu Dhabi was against us. Even before the Asia Cup I said it in a press conference that this time Afghanistan didn't come just to play, but also do something. And we did. I'd say we've now got the experience, the boys know what to do going ahead. It has been a brilliant tournament for us."
Their Asia Cup campaign was another reminder that Afghanistan were more than just about Rashid, Mujeeb and Nabi. On Tuesday, Mohammad Shahzad, in an entertaining manner typical of him, huffed, puffed, whipped, cut, pulled, hopped and hobbled his way to a century. Here was a man Afghanistan nearly gave up on four years ago because he was unfit, and couldn't stop binging on his biryani even as the rest of his mates traded rich Afghan food for oats and boiled vegetables.
Shahzad has admitted to carrying that hurt, but has channeled it now, churning out runs over the last three years to ensure he is undroppable for the World Cup. If ever there was a statement made to demarcate cricket fitness to yo-yo fitness, this was it. A man fighting his own body, fighting the UAE heat, battling cramps and dehydration to eke out a century that elicited praise and a handshake from his hero, MS Dhoni.
Shahzad doesn't believe much of the talk around his fitness is justified. He admits to enjoying his food and desserts, but insists he can whack the ball longest over deep midwicket. It's not arrogance but the confidence he derives from reading Rashid and Mujeeb expertly in the nets.
Afghanistan have two fine allrounders in Samiullah Shenwari and Gulbadin Naib, while the top order looks formidable with the presence of Afghan, Rahmat Shah and Hashmatullah Shahidi, all of whom made at least one half-century in the tournament. Simmons believes the batsmen still have some distance to travel before they are on level with their bowling. Afghan acknowledged his coach's words, and hoped they had taken some strides towards parity.
"Definitely, we have improved in our batting," Afghan said. "Previously this was our weak area and we're working on it regularly. In the Asia Cup it was okay but when we're going to a mega event like the World Cup, there is still lots to improve because conditions in Asia and Europe are different. But it has improved if you compare to our previous outings."
The batting improvement was visible, with the team scoring 250 in almost all of their matches. This consistency wasn't because of one contribution. The lower order has been given equal attention at the batting nets, for the need to ensure they're able to hold their own whenever needed to bail the team out, like the match-winning unbroken 95-run stand for the eighth wicket between Rashid and Naib in the group stage game against Bangladesh.
For this, Afghan credits coach Simmons. "The important thing he has done is he has understood what the team's level is. Previously we didn't understand the level we were at. When Phil came in, he had played a lot of games against us (as Ireland coach), so he showed us our level. As a team, we didn't aim high, but Phil raised the bar. In my opinion, all our performances with Phil have been brilliant and we've learnt a lot. We've learnt a lot from other coaches too, but we've learnt a lot more from Phil."
The tournament statistics will read two straight losses in the Super Four stage and one tie. But you would have to skim past that to get to the heart of Afghanistan's rise as an ODI team, one that can't be measured without having watched them fight till the end. They rallied with the confidence of a newly elevated-prince fighting for his territory amid emperors who assumed the territory belonged to them. But as Afghan said, "when you tie with a team like India, it's like winning."