Mature Afghanistan enter big league
In October 2011, four months into their World Cricket League Championship campaign, Afghanistan were a little wobbly. They had beaten Canada easily but were struggling in the lower half of the group after losing both matches to UAE, a team coached by a man who, until a few months ago, had coached Afghanistan.
Former Pakistan fast bowler and current Afghanistan coach, Kabir Khan, can laugh about that memory now. But he is also quick to admit that the losses put Afghanistan under a lot of pressure. And he would know a few things about that.
Khan had coached the Afghanistan side through a near-fairytale season, when they went from playing division five of the World Cricket League to a place in the qualifiers for the 2009 World Cup. He coached the team when they beat Ireland to qualify for their first T20 World Cup. And after his stint with UAE ended in 2011, Khan returned to Afghanistan, taking over at a time when the side were under pressure to stay in contention for a top-of-the-table finish.
It was that pressure that the Afghanistan team absorbed and thrived on, according to Khan. Speaking after his side's win against Kenya, which took them to the 2015 World Cup, Khan said that the team had learnt to be unafraid.
"The boys have faced a lot of pressure and they are getting used to it, and they are starting to enjoy it," Khan says. "I think for them, pressure is now something that they want to enjoy and grow into, as opposed to other amateur players who sometimes want to get out of it."
That ability showed in the way their spinners set up the win on Friday, first stifling and then dismissing the Kenyan top-order in a must-win game. It also showed in Mohammad Nabi's resilient knock of 46, which brushed aside the loss of early wickets and bring the ebullience of win.
Khan points out how that maturity and ability were a direct result of the World Cup qualifier in 2009. Afghanistan had a dream run until the qualifier, progressing from division five - the lowest in the tournament - to three and eventually to the qualifying tournament for the 2011 World Cup. The side finished sixth in a group of eight - it wasn't enough to enter the World Cup, but good enough to get them ODI status for four years.
"It [the season] was a huge difference of gain and the team was achieving its targets quickly. They were performing well, but the maturity was not there, to play against the big boys at the top," Khan says. "And at that stage, if we had qualified for the World Cup and faced losses, it would have meant this team was not good enough at that level.
"The game was new in the country, and for them [the fans], they didn't know the difference between the quality of Pakistan, India, Australia and Afghanistan. These four years, when we didn't qualify but we still had our ODI status, we played two T20 matches against India and international matches and the people who started following cricket, began understanding the rules and the laws of cricket as well. As a team, you need the support of your nation and that would only come when they know cricket. Now, if the team loses to Australia, people understand that Australia is a big team; if we lose to India, they understand. Now, the whole nation is ready for it. The boys have matured in the last four years and they know what international cricket is all about and how to perform there."
Even as the cricket board is strengthening its own domestic season with limited-overs and first-class tournaments at different levels, the trend of playing in other countries is something that Khan encourages, for entirely practical purposes. Mohammad Nabi and pace bowler Hamid Hassan have played for the MCC alongside players like Sourav Ganguly and Brian Lara. Nabi plays in the Dhaka Premier Division, while fast bowler Shapoor Zadran has played for Badureliya Sports Club in Sri Lanka.
"We want them to be busy," Khan says. "The developed cricketing countries, like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, England and Australia have cricketing seasons, where boys are busy playing domestic cricket, keeping fit and they always have a professional coach and a professional staff. The problem with our players was, and is, that they are not always with professionals. We always encourage them to go to other domestic leagues; they will play with the top players and with top coaches there, they will learn something there."
The team doesn't have too much time to celebrate, though. The World T20 qualifiers are scheduled to take place in the UAE between November 15 and 30 and that is the immediate goal. Given the format of the tournament, Afghanistan will be aiming to top their group and secure a place in the World T20 next year.
The 50-over World Cup is a long-term goal and Khan stresses that training his batsmen to understand and adapt to Australian conditions will be one of the biggest challenges. Time, he believes, is on his side.
"Asian batsmen struggle in Australia, so we have to create an environment for our batsmen, where they get a taste of what sort of wickets there are and how to play on wickets that are going to be bouncy, seaming," he says. "We might take them on a tour to Australia, two or three months before the start of the World Cup and then come back and work on our weaknesses. At the Global Academy in Dubai, they have prepared some Australian-type pitches as well, so we can practise on them. Those are the things that you can work on. It's going to be helpful to our fast bowling. And we have enough time on our hands, which is very good for us."
One of the things Khan is proud of is the transformation of the players from aggressive, hard-hitting batsmen to focused individuals, who have still retained their attitude.
"By nature, they [the team] are aggressive, which goes against them because if you're always trying to hit sixes, you're going to get out. So as a coach, it's about channelising their aggression and trying to control it at a time when it's not needed. Now, after four years, I can say the fielding and bowling is around 80 percent controlled, while in the batting, they've controlled around 60 percent and 40 percent still remains to be controlled. But that's their nature and that's why they make good fast bowlers and fielders. They don't want to lose to anyone. I have seen them play against the big teams and they always want to win; they talk about how it would feel to beat such a big team. Other teams are happy when they qualify, but this team when it qualifies, it wants to win."
Rachna Shetty is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo