Cynicism has triumphed in the modern world, and cricket is no exception. It is an age associated with million-dollar T20
auctions and the spectre of match-fixing. Cricketing romance seems a quaint idea. But occasionally, just occasionally, a flicker emerges.
Two such moments stood out in 2013. The first was Ashton Agar's magical and spellbinding 98 on Test debut in Trent Bridge. The second was in the World Cricket League, a tournament many cricket fans had previously been oblivious to.
On October 4, Afghanistan secured the runners-up spot in the World Cricket League. That might be meaningless to all except cricket nerds, but it was noted far beyond the cricket world. The reason? Afghanistan had qualified for the 2015 World Cup.
The romance of the tale is glorious and impossible to deny. Yet, in truth, the event was completely predictable. Over the last four years, Afghanistan have been Ireland's only real challengers for Associate cricket supremacy. There was nothing surprising about Afghanistan securing the second automatic qualification berth for the World Cup.
Still, they certainly didn't make it easy for themselves. After an indifferent start, they needed to win all six of their World Cricket League fixtures in 2013 to secure automatic qualification. They managed it with minimal sweat and no little swagger. Needing to beat Kenya in their final two World Cricket League games, Afghanistan delivered two crushing victories: twice bowling Kenya out for under100.
Pace is the reason why. It is a rare commodity in modern cricket, as Mitchell Johnson's shock and awe in the Ashes reminds us. At Associate level that's even truer: many opening bowlers seldom clock above 70mph. Afghanistan are different: they have at least three bowlers who can regularly exceed 85mph. The best of the lot is Hamid Hassan. His pace, reverse swing and yorkers make him Associate cricket's most lethal bowler; over five days against Kenya (two ODIs and one T20), he produced figures of 20-6-34-9. The gulf in class seemed embarrassing. Even when Hassan was injured, Izatullah Dawlatzai, Dawlat Zadran and left-armer Shapoor Zadran all gave Associate batsmen enough of a hurry to suggest that they can test the Full Members. Topping it all was the emergence of legspinner Samiullah Shenwari, who was Player of the Tournament in the World Twenty20 qualifiers.
Outside the Test world, Afghanistan's success is no longer noteworthy. It seems almost as inevitable as the triumphs of the 1980s West Indians or the 1990s and 2000s Australians. Excluding Ireland, Afghanistan won 26 out of 28 games against Associates and Affiliates in 2013.
In the World Twenty20 Qualifiers, Afghanistan responded to a surprise defeat by Netherlands to embark upon a run of seven straight wins to secure their place in the first stage of the tournament next March.
They were even more imperious in the Intercontinental Cup, thrashing Scotland, Namibia and Kenya to reach the final.
Unfortunately for Afghanistan, a pattern emerged. In all three formats, first-class, ODI and T20, they finished runners-up to Ireland. For all their talent, a tendency to self-destruct remains. As Afghanistan Cricket CEO Noor Mohammad admits, "We need to work on batting, fielding and mental strength." An unwelcome reminder of the penchant for batting collapses came in the Intercontinental Cup final: Afghanistan lost their last four wickets for seven runs in the first innings and 12 in the second.
Batting deficiencies too often force the bowlers to bail the side out: the continued erraticism of Mohammad Shahzad, who has cult status for his thrilling helicopter shot, is emblematic. Nawroz Mangal played Afghanistan's most important innings of the year - an unbeaten 112 off 96 balls to make overhauling Scotland's 199 in the World Cricket League seem facile - but he only averaged 12.2 in the World Twenty20 qualifiers.
Still, the defeats to Ireland could not take the gloss off Afghanistan's year. For all the manifest inconvenience of playing at
"home" in the UAE, Afghanistan still attract raucous crowds for these fixtures. Several players excelled in the Dhaka Premier League, playing alongside and against Tillakaratne Dilshan, Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara. National captain Mohammad Nabi, an offspinning allrounder, scored a 90-ball 146 in the tournament. There was also an impressive win against India Under-23 in the Asian Cricket Council
Emerging Teams Cup to applaud, although Afghanistan disappointed during the short tour to face Pakistan A in February. And, as importantly, Afghanistan's wider progress continued: they were finally granted Associate status by the ICC, received a healthy dose of TAPP funding, and continued to attract donors to cricket in the country, including USAID.
The year nearly had a perfect denouement, too. When Afghanistan took Pakistan to the final over in their T20 international in December, they would fleetingly have dreamt of a first Full Member scalp. Typically that was almost exclusively down to the bowlers; the batsmen made 137.
But that was Afghanistan's only game against a Test-playing nation all year. The board has been trying to find Full Members willing to play them for years, but even those who lament a lack of fixtures have not been keen. There are, belatedly, signs that this could change: Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka are close to agreeing to Afghanistan's repeated requests to arrange games. Afghanistan even has the funds available to pay their opponents' hosting fees in the event of any tours.
The end of the year brought confirmation of an inconvenient truth for Afghanistan. Ireland remain a fitter, more professional and more consistent cricket team, for all Afghanistan's bluster. Yet Afghanistan are also closing the gap on the weakest Test-playing nations. After another year of on-field progress, they are entitled to feel that they deserve better than slumming it exclusively in the Associate and Affiliate world.
Returning home after World Cup qualification to be greeted by thousands of jubilant supporters was a reminder that cricket has become the national sport, and the sport's power is such that even the Taliban has lauded Afghanistan's success.
The profligate bowling display in the World Twenty20 qualifying final: Ireland's openers looted 68 in 5.3 overs en route to reaching 225 for 7. With spearhead Hassan injured, Afghanistan were overwhelmed by Paul Stirling and William Porterfield. They cannot afford such ragtag displays if they are to pip Bangladesh to the main stage of next year's World Twenty20.
New kid on the block Rahmat Shah was an unknown until the end of the year but he produced an outstanding performance in the Intercontinental Cup final. He took 5 for 94 in the match with his legspin, including two to his googly. Perhaps even more impressive was his second-innings batting: Shah displayed exemplary technique in taking 246 balls for his unbeaten 86. Shah, who also performed well alongside established Test players in the Dhaka Premier League, is only 20. It's a sign of Afghanistan's depth that he's yet to play for the T20 side.
What 2014 holds
Much of Afghanistan's year will hinge on Hassan's fitness on March 16: with him, Afghanistan have a reasonable chance of defeating Bangladesh and qualifying for the main stage of the World Twenty20. The other focus will be on getting more Test nations to play Afghanistan. David Cameron has suggested a football match to mark the end of British military involvement in Afghanistan, but a cricket game would be far more competitive.