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Afghanistan have hit a bump on their happy road

The World Cup's underdogs came in as fan favourites, but what they really wanted to do was win games. That didn't happen

Jarrod Kimber
Jarrod Kimber
Ikram Alikhil plays a stylish pull shot, Afghanistan v West Indies. World Cup 2019, Headingley, July 4, 2019

Afghanistan didn't get the flat pitches some might have expected England to furnish, and they did not come into the tournament with much experience of testing conditions in recent months  •  Getty Images

Someone shot at Shapoor Zadran.
Hazratullah Zazai was a Chris Gayle fan who worked nights as a cellphone-tower security guard, watching YouTube.
Mohammad Nabi's father was kidnapped.
Taj Malik walked across the Durand line to spread cricket at home.
Hillary Clinton said, "I might suggest that if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team."
Afghanistan are the good-news story of sport. Everyone wants to see them do well. They bring joy.
Gulbadin Naib brings happiness to everyone who watches him. He is probably one of the least naturally gifted players at this World Cup, but he wills himself to be better. In a nation of barely fit players, he's an Adonis; in a team of supremely skilled players, he's a worker. His team comprises many unicorns, and he's the pack horse. He has been in and out of the team, struggling for every chance, since he represented his country as a teenager in the World Cricket League Division Five in Jersey over a decade ago. Every day Gulbadin gives everything he has. It may not be enough, but it is all he has. After the team's last game of this World Cup, against West Indies, he said, "I am here for Afghanistan, for my team. I give 100% for my team and country."
But they are not here to make cricket fans feel good, they are here to win. They are also cricketers, and while it is tempting to say they have won just by being here, that is not how they feel. They wear their patriotism heavier than most; every run, wicket and catch is a chance to honour their magnificent nation.
And their story of this World Cup is that they have not won a game.
That hurts them as professional cricketers, but more as Afghans. They did not come here to be your new favourite team, they came to win.


Khushal Khan Khattak was an Afghan legend. He was a poet and a chief who fought for the Khattak tribe. To this day he is the ideal of man and leader for many Pashtuns of Afghanistan. They like their men strong, smart and fearless. They wouldn't follow anyone who wasn't.
The leader of this team is not like that, and that is because in April they axed Asghar Afghan as captain. Asghar was in charge when they won their first Test and when they qualified for this tournament. But they let him go, and in his place was Gulbadin.
The reason given by the board at the time included this baffling quote: "The World Cup provides us with the opportunity to play against nine Full Members. So we thought it is a good time to introduce change in leadership." It seemed they mistook the World Cup for an internship.
The leadership question also became a public conflict between head coach Phil Simmons and former selector Dawlat Ahmadzai. During the tournament the board demoted Ahmadzai to a junior selector. Simmons has said he'll soon air the truth about Asghar's sacking.
Two players have been sent home from this tournament. Mohammad Shahzad returned because of injury, after Afghanistan proved to the ICC that he wasn't fit. Now, you could make the claim Shahzad has never been fit - his knees are not great, and he has never been in peak professional shape. But despite that he is also their all-time leading run scorer and their wicketkeeper. He found out when the ICC announced his replacement in a press release.
The board suggest he had a mild anterior cruciate ligament strain. Shahzad says he would have been fine in two or three days according to the doctor. And since then has said, "If they don't want me to play, I will quit cricket."
Then they lost another player, Aftab Alam, under circumstances that remain unclear but are understood to constitute a clear breach of disciplinary codes.
As a team, they also had a run-in in a restaurant in Manchester where the team was allegedly upset at being filmed by other patrons. Nothing came of it, but the Manchester police released a statement and made enquiries.
Their fans have also been in trouble. At the Pakistan game, several jumped over the fence to get into the ground, and there were also some clashes in the stands and a crowd invasion after the match finished.
That's quite a few weeks.
Rashid Khan is staring out at deep midwicket the way superstars stare at averagely talented players who make mistakes. There is genuine disdain in his eyes. As he travels around the world dominating T20 leagues, he usually sees fielding of a far higher standard than this.
Dawlat Zadran has just dropped Eoin Morgan. It is an easy catch on the boundary from a top edge, and Zadran also lets it run away for four. Until then, Morgan had scored 28 from 25, with eight from six off Rashid. After that he scores 120 from 52 balls, and 50 from 14 just off Rashid. This tournament Afghanistan have taken 2.8 catches for every drop (only Pakistan have been worse). And that doesn't count the huge array of skied balls their fielders haven't got near.
Against Australia, Gulbadin and Najibullah Zadran put on 83, then both were out in the same over. In the New Zealand match they were 66 for 0, then 66 for 3, before moving to 70 for 4. They found their way to 69 for 2 in the South Africa game, and then 77 for 7. In the West Indies game they were 189 for 2, and then lost two wickets in an over and another one within 14 balls. Coming into their final game their two highest run scorers were Hashmatullah Shahidi and Najibullah, and both have been dropped during the tournament. Gulbadin has opened, and batted at five, six and eight. Ikram Alikhil has batted at nine and first drop. That's their batting.
The Sri Lanka loss was cemented in the first five overs. Afghanistan won the toss on a seaming pitch and bowled as badly as they could. Sri Lanka made 52 in those five overs, 25% of their total. Hamid Hassan bowled poorly. He was the big gamble on his return. In the World Cup he bowled 26 overs in five games, taking one wicket. That's their former hero.
When Shahzad was sent home, Afghanistan brought in Ikram as their new keeper. They batted him at nine. So it meant that to replace Shahzad they had to bring in a batsman as well. That ruined their balance. Often they looked a genuine batsman short and a front-line bowler light. That's their balance.
It wasn't until they played India that their line-up looked strong again, and that was because the pitch helped their spinners, so all their other problems fell away. They didn't quite get there against India, and Bangladesh slightly outclassed them, but they were in games.
And then there was Pakistan. Afghanistan were scrappy against them in a way they often aren't. They have spent so long beating less gifted sides that they often play like the primary-school bully who has arrived in high school. Against Pakistan they manufactured a total on a tricky wicket by adding up all their 20s, 30s and 40-odds to 227 for 9. Their fingerspinners were incredible - Mujeeb at the top, Nabi in the middle - and they dotted up Pakistan. Their bowlers didn't run through, but sat and waited for mistakes, and Pakistan made a few. With five overs remaining Pakistan needed 46 runs with four wickets in hand.
This was Afghanistan's big chance. Their gamble on Hamid hadn't worked, Rashid Khan was bowling okay but he wasn't the venomous force they wanted, and they had to make a choice on which bowler would join Mujeeb and Rashid at the end.
The obvious pick was Samiullah Shinwari, who had stepped up for the crocked Hamid with eight overs for 32 runs. But Gulbadin wanted a seamer, and there was only one left: himself. Talking to Sharda Ugra during this tournament, Gulbadin said, "If you had told me I would be the Afghanistan captain, I would never have believed it."
No one can, even now. At his first press conference the ICC - as Afghanistan had no press officer - had to tell the journalists that he would not be answering questions about captaincy. Maybe even he didn't have the answer to why he was in charge.
Gulbadin is a trier. He truly believes that if he just tries that little bit harder, there is nothing he can't do. He's hard to not enjoy, especially when he poses after wickets or laughs along in press conferences. But at this point in his career, he is not a tactical captain, not even a work-experience one.
When a player was hit earlier in the tournament, Gulbadin talked about how Afghan men could take a hit on the head. He believes that he is part of a special, almost superhuman race of people, that he has the magic Afghan strength, so there is nothing he can't do.
But there are lots of things he can't do. He is not an opening batsman, based on his weird swipe against West Indies, and he is not a death bowler, based on the many balls he has bowled at the death that have been hit. Yet, like a club-cricket captain who slightly misjudges his own talent, he has been both in this tournament.
So he did what he wanted to do since Afghanistan were an Associate battler and he was the tragicomic figure in the documentary Out of the Ashes - be the man to win a World Cup game for his people.
It didn't matter that his figures were 0 for 47 from eight at that point. This was hero time, and he is a hero.
Gulbadin bowled a full toss, a long hop, had a mishit almost hit a fielder who couldn't find it, and his over went for 18. But Afghanistan fought back. There was a run-out, Mujeeb bowled an over that should be hung in a gallery, and with six balls to go and six runs to get, the obvious choice was to go back to Shinwari. But there was only ever one man who would bowl this over.
Gulbadin came back on with all his limitations and limitless confidence. He said, "You will with the mind or play with the heart." No one wills like him or has his heart. But at the death his economy is 9.6 an over, and in this tournament no other bowler has delivered as many runs from balls that batsmen are in control of, and he bowls the kind of medium pace that even tailenders could never fear. His over only lasted four deliveries. A full toss, a lucky one off the pad down leg, then a decent full and wide one, and another full toss. It was filth - last-over, match-losing filth.
His return spell had fielding errors, bowling dross, awful tactics, injuries, and players not quite good enough. That is Afghanistan in this moment, and of this tournament. That's their captain.
To put a professional sporting structure in place in a country still rebuilding after war is almost impossible. There are also basic cricket problems. Afghanistan have built a frankly ridiculous list of spinning talent. Qais Ahmed, Zahir Khan and Waqar Salamkheil would be in most squads this tournament, and a few starting XIs as well. But behind the spin a lot is lacking.
Afghanistan does not have a lot of international-quality batting. They have some incredible hitting, and decent all-round options, or - as someone may have suggested - a team of No. 8s, but they don't have players who can make hundreds. Their players who have the talent to bat long innings do it at a strike rate of around 65, and they don't even have many of them. This tournament, five players have opened the batting for Afghanistan.
When qualifying for this World Cup they mostly played in Asian conditions or on slower pitches, like in Zimbabwe. When the ball darted around in Cardiff, they struggled. And even when they play in bowler-friendly conditions, it isn't against high-quality opposition. There are some good bowlers in the lower regions of cricket, but none are Lasith Malinga or Mitchell Starc. Before the last World Cup, the ICC sent the Associates out to acclimatise in the conditions of Australia and New Zealand. And the qualifying tournament was in New Zealand. They did these things to ensure all teams were as competitive as they could be. This time they did neither.
Also, by playing on those slower pitches, Afghanistan can get away with three or four killer spinners. It means they haven't had to groom as many quick bowlers. Of their best four seam bowlers since the last World Cup, Shapoor is almost finished, Hamid didn't finish this tournament, Aftab was sent home, and only Dawlat saw this tournament through. Hence why Gulbadin bowled so much.
They also would have - like most teams - expected the flatter English pitches of the last three years. But the conditions have not allowed for that. And they had to play many of their games early on, during England's unscheduled rainy season. Their lack of seam, and their batsmen's homespun techniques, were not up to it.
They also would have expected Rashid to be better than he has been. His record against teams at this World Cup, despite having not played many matches, was very promising. But he has looked out of form, bowling more short balls in a spell than he does in an entire franchise season. Afghanistan would have expected 15 wickets at five runs an over from him at worst, they've instead ended with six wickets at 5.79. The other magical player is Nabi, and he's made six single-digit scores.
There are problems to overcome, but Afghanistan also possess a cricket-mad culture, and their Under-19 team came fourth in the last tournament. There is talent, and hope, like with their batting line-up before their middle-order collapses.


The sporting world lost its mind when Iceland did well in football, and Japan made a big impact in rugby. Sport craves these underdog, from-nowhere stories.
Afghanistan in cricket is so much more than that. Since rebels started bowling overarm, nothing greater has happened to cricket than Afghanistan's rise. Cricket devised a system that made it all but impossible for new members to get to the top level, and the most extraordinary country on earth made it anyway. A team of refugees with Shahid Afridi crushes walked across the Durand line, charged our game, and bowled us over. Fast-bowling gods, spinning legends, and more wild swings to the leg side than you'll see in a year of street cricket, from a nation at war, from outside the Commonwealth's cricket club.
And the game we love, look what it gave this country: different heroes and something they could be truly proud of.
Former ACB chairman Atif Mashal once told ESPNcricinfo, "Cricket is not only a game in Afghanistan. It is a tool for peace-building and unity. We are a post-war country. After four decades of war, we really need something to unite our people, to use it as a peace tool."
Afghanistan give the game stories; cricket provides this nation with something to hold on to.
And this was the tournament where, with an array of spin, some big hitting, and all the heart in the world, they came to win "three or four matches", according to Gulbadin. Until now Afghanistan cricket has been full of good stories. Not this time.
"We should improve our fitness, we should improve our skills, we should improve everything," Gulbadin said. "I am not happy with this team performance. No one has given their 100% performance for the country."
He didn't mean that they hadn't given their all, he meant they hadn't performed their best.
"I face a lot of good days and bad days in my life, but I never look back, just forward." Afghanistan have been through so much worse, and their cricket has given them so much.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber