Afghanistan December 31, 2017

The very best year of them all

Afghanistan have had an incredible run in international cricket since 2010, but with multiple series wins, and Test status, 2017 has been truly special

Rashid Khan became a globally recognised leggie for Afghanistan this year © Peter Della Penna

In the decade since Afghanistan first began to catch the cricket world's attention at ICC World Cricket League Division Five in 2008, the phrase "greatest moment in Afghanistan cricket history" is one that has bordered on cliché. Just when it looks like they have mounted the highest peak possible for a rags-to-riches Associate, they eye another to scale.

Past candidates for the title were their victory at the 2010 World T20 Qualifier to propel them to their first major World T20 event. In their first time participating in the Intercontinental Cup, they won the first-class Associate championship with in December 2010 to show they were more than just limited-overs wildlings. Then came the victory over Kenya in 2013 that clinched a spot at their first ever 50-over World Cup.

In that tournament, Afghanistan prevailed in a a one-wicket nail-biter over Scotland, and later in 2015, they won their first series over a Full Member, in Zimbabwe. A few months later, Afghanistan downed Zimbabwe in the opening round to move into the main draw of the 2016 World T20 in India, then managed to become the only team to upend the eventual tournament champion, West Indies.

But in 2017, "greatest moments" seemed to occur at a spectacular rate. They made this year hands down Afghanistan's greatest yet.

It got underway in earnest in January, when they rolled off five straight wins to take the inaugural Desert T20 Challenge in the UAE. The godfather of Afghanistan cricket, former captain Nawroz Mangal, was given a red-carpet farewell by a 15-000 crowd in his final appearance for the national team, as Ireland were steamrolled for 71 in a ten-wicket romp that lasted a total of 21.1 overs.

That triumphant night in Dubai set the tone for the next several months. Another 3-2 ODI series win in February in Zimbabwe precipitated a resounding series of victories in March over Ireland: 3-0 in the T20Is, which extended Afghanistan's world-record streak of T20I wins to 11, and 3-2 in the ODIs. Those were harbingers for the coup de grace, an innings and 172-run mauling inside of three days in an Intercontinental Cup match, which, at the time, put Afghanistan in pole position to be the sole Associate to advance to a four-match Test challenge series against the lowest-ranked Full Member.

Afghanistan's maiden bilateral tour to the Caribbean came in the summer, and they claimed a famous 63-run win over the hosts in the first ODI in Gros Islet.

Among Afghanistan's many big ODI wins this year was one against West Indies in St Lucia © AFP/Getty Images

Throughout all the history-making triumphs, 2017 will probably be remembered as the year of Rashid Khan. The legspinner with the devilish grin and hellacious googly terrorised almost every batsman who stood in his path.

He was the team's leading wicket-taker in the Desert T20 Challenge, with nine in five games; took with ten in five ODIs against Zimbabwe; was the leading bowler from either side in both the T20I and ODI series wins against Ireland, claiming 25 wickets across eight matches, including an outrageous record-setting 5 for 3 in the space of nine balls to turn the tide in an eventual 17-run D-L win in the second T20I.

Rashid was the catalyst for the Intercontinental Cup win over Ireland, 5 for 99 in the first innings and eight for the match. He saved his best, though, for that magical night in St Lucia as he humiliated the West Indies middle order with a diet of googlies to claim an Afghanistan record 7 for 18, the fourth-best ODI haul of all time.

That came on the heels of Rashid's even more remarkable journey alongside Mohammad Nabi over the previous two months in India. Back in February, while the national team was in the middle of its ODI series in Zimbabwe, the squad woke up in the early hours ahead of the third ODI to witness Nabi and Rashid's fate at the IPL auction.

Nabi became the first Afghanistan player taken by an IPL team when he received a bid of Rs 30 lakhs (US$ 46,000 approx) from Sunrisers Hyderabad. The excitement rose exponentially during the bidding war between Mumbai Indians and Sunrisers for Rashid. When Mumbai finally dropped out, Rashid's status as a burgeoning global superstar was confirmed by Sunrisers' bid of Rs 4 crore (US$595,000).

A month later, the pair became the first set of Afghans drafted in the Caribbean Premier League, when Nabi was picked up by St Kitts and Nevis Patriots for $90,000, and Rashid by Guyana Amazon Warriors for $60,000.

They were far from token selections. Rashid played a central role in Sunrisers' run to the IPL final. Nabi made a handful of appearances with Sunrisers but had a much more prominent and successful role with Patriots, helping them to the CPL final. Rashid also helped Amazon Warriors to the playoffs, taking the CPL's first hat-trick along the way. By the end of the year, both men would find themselves part of the Big Bash as well.

Afghanistan celebrate winning the ODI series against Ireland in India in March © Associated Press

"I leaped from my chair when the first bid was made for Nabi," Shafiq Stanikzai, Afghanistan Cricket Board CEO, said on the day of the IPL auction. "This is a huge morale boost and motive for cricket to emerge more. Such achievements are giving us more energy and more motivation that we are right in our appeals and our application at ICC level that we want to become a Test nation and a Full Member."

That dream of Full Membership and Test cricket suddenly became real in June, when Afghanistan's application was accepted alongside that of Ireland at the ICC annual conference in London to become the 11th and 12th Test nations. The opportunity for a festive celebration to mark administrative achievement of Full Membership came a month later, when Afghanistan played their first ever match at Lord's, against an MCC side. Though the match was abandoned to rain, it did little to dampen the spirits of the 8000 fans who travelled from around the UK and Europe to shout praise for their national heroes.

The junior squad was in the news too, producing a stunning result by winning the Under-19 Asia Cup for the first time. A foretaste of their November success in Malaysia came a month earlier when they defeated Bangladesh U-19 3-1 in a five-match series in October. Though they had experienced sporadic success in various junior tournaments in previous years, nothing came close to the consistently dominant display they produced in Kuala Lumpur, which included two strong wins over Pakistan, where they bowled them out for 57 in the group stage and then 63 in the final.

The seniors headed towards the end of the year with more desert success, cantering past UAE in Abu Dhabi to secure their second Intercontinental Cup title in what will serve as their final Associate tournament appearance. A rare blemish came in the three-match ODI series in Sharjah against Ireland, where after roasting Ireland in the opener, Afghanistan's batting stumbled in the final two matches.

High point
As great as the many on-field successes were, it's hard to look past the ICC board's decision to grant Afghanistan Full Membership and Test status. It had been 17 years since an Associate had been elevated to Full Membership last. Many observers feel Bangladesh's status was granted hastily after a lone World Cup win over Pakistan, in that instance. Afghanistan's resume was arguably far meatier at the time they were granted Test status, with multiple series wins over Full Members in both T20Is and ODIs, and their dominance in the Intercontinental Cup, where they have a record of 17 wins, four draws and just one loss - in the 2013 Intercontinental Cup final to Ireland - since entering the competition in 2009.

Low point
Mohammad Shahzad was absent for most of Afghanistan's on-field successes after testing positive on January 17 for Clenbuterol, a prohibited substance. The test was taken during the Desert T20 Challenge, a tournament Shahzad finished as the highest scorer, including making twin fifties in a day, in the morning semi-final against Oman and then the final against Ireland.

Afghanistan missed Mohammad Shahzad's big-hitting contributions due to a doping violation © Associated Press

New kid on the block
Mujeeb Zadran adds a new element to a multi-dimensional bowling attack. The 16-year-old tormented Pakistan at the U-19 Asia Cup with a six-for in the group stage win, followed by a five-for in the final. Overall he claimed 20 wickets in five games and made a splash on ODI debut against Ireland, taking the new ball and finishing with 4 for 24. He supplanted left-arm spinner Amir Hamza in the XI, showing that the pipeline continues to keep the established senior core on their toes. A trio of Mujeeb, Nabi and Rashid may be a handful for years to come.

Fading star
Once a mainstay of Afghanistan's limited-overs sides, Shapoor Zadran descended into relative anonymity in 2017. After an extended layoff that began in mid-2016, he was recalled for the T20I series in India against Ireland but took only two wickets in three games, while leaking runs at 12.30 per over.

His lone ODI was the series decider against Ireland at year-end, where he finished with 0 for 71 in seven overs. At age 30, old by the standards of Afghanistan's squad, the odds of him featuring many more times for the national side may be slim.

What 2018 holds
A February series against Zimbabwe in the UAE and a return trip in March to take part in the World Cup Qualifier. Though competition for a spot in the 2019 World Cup will be at an all-time high due to fewer berths available and the inclusion of West Indies and Qualifier hosts Zimbabwe, Afghanistan will enter the tournament as a favourite to claim one of two qualifying berths on offer. After Rashid dismantled West Indies' batting line-up in St Lucia last June, Afghanistan know they can win a one-match showdown. Afghanistan have a dominant record against Zimbabwe, including in Zimbabwe, and they have dominated Associate competition since the 2015 World Cup.

If they can squeeze though a scrappy qualifying draw, the majority of the World Cup field will get their first taste of Rashid come July 2019, making any Afghanistan match a must-watch. Aside from the 50-over World Cup qualification journey, Afghanistan's inaugural Test, against India, is also eagerly anticipated for 2018. It will offer yet another slice of history for Afghanistan fans to savour.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna