ICC World T20 - Men

Impressive Afghans enter new phase

They've threatened it many times before but Afghanistan's triumph over a top-eight full-member nation could be a watershed moment

Tim Wigmore

30 March 2016, 07:52 PM AEST

Tim writes for The New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Economist, ESPNCricinfo, and is a contributor for The New Statesman. He was named CMJ Young Journalist of the Year in 2015 and is co-author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

The tale of the Afghanistan cricket team is among the most remarkable in sporting history. The sight of Chris Gayle taking a selfie with the victorious Afghan side, who had just downed one of cricket’s traditional top eight for the first ever time, suggested it was moving into a new phase, in which the story is no longer Afghanistan’s rise but them cementing their position among cricket’s elite.

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Gayle's selfie with the Afghans // Getty

Afghanistan had threatened this moment before: all throughout the Super 10s, in fact. They should have downed Sri Lanka in their first match, only to be denied largely by their own shoddy fielding. Against South Africa, they spilled AB de Villiers to concede over 200 but, even then, threatened a phenomenal victory, as they reached 2-100 before the tenth over was out. Afghanistan had England 6-57 and facing ignominy but, partly because of an lbw reprieve for Moeen Ali, England hauled themselves up to 7-142. Afghanistan imploded at the start of the innings and misjudged their batting order in their panic, but still only fell 15 runs short.

But against the West Indies in Nagpur, Afghanistan finally recorded their victory. It was a scrappy win, defending 123 on a slow Nagpur wicket, and West Indies had rested Chris Gayle. Yet none of this should detract from Afghanistan’s achievement. The main World T20 tournament was indubitably enriched by their presence. Recording a win just amounted to a flicker of sporting justice.

This was a hugely encouraging tournament for Afghanistan. If the abiding memory is one of the chutzpah and impetuosity of Mohammad Shahzad and his marmalisation of South Africa in Mumbai, the most heartening aspect was how Afghanistan adapted their game to suit different conditions with the help of their new generation.

WATCH: Shahzad powers Afghanistan to victory

Afghanstan’s trio of fast bowling stallions, Shapoor Zadran, Hamid Hassan and Dawlat Zadran, has long been their strength. But here Afghanistan routinely took to the pitch with only one of the trio. This was pragmatism out of the New Zealand playbook: shrewdly assessing the conditions, Afghanistan knew they called for spin, so dropped their fast-bowling mainstays.

They did not regret it. In Mohammad Nabi, Samiullah Shenwari, Rashid Khan and Amir Hamza, Afghanistan have a high quality and varied spin quartet – an offspinner, two legspinners and a left-arm orthodox.

Nabi and Shenwari, Afghanistan’s two leading allrounders, have underpinned the side’s intoxicating journey. They both grew up in refugee camps in Peshawar, and, through indomitable spirit and copious talent, lifted Afghanistan up from World Cricket League Division Five, where they competed with Jersey, Japan, the Bahamas and co in 2008, to become regulars on the global stage.

Yet it is Hamza and Khan who elicit most excitement, for they are products of the second generation of Afghan cricket. They are symbols of the promise that Afghan cricket is not merely the story of one remarkable generation, but has now created a culture of success. Afghan cricket today is a world that now includes academies, A teams and a domestic competition that – unlike even Sri Lanka’s – includes four-day cricket, reflecting the desire to advance to Test status.

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The two offer stirring proof that Afghanistan’s system is working. Hamza has bowled with nous all tournament, supremely confident opening the bowling with his left-arm spin. He has a laudable temperament too: after being harrumphed for 25 in an over against England, Hamza opened against the West Indies and took 1-9 from his four overs.

Meanwhile Khan has been a delight all tournament, marrying googlies with artful legspin and an action that bears some resemblance to Mushtaq Ahmed. Eleven wickets across the qualifier and main phase of the WT20 have been the result, and all this from a man born in 1998.

Afghanistan do not intend to stop just yet, either. Already they have usurped Zimbabwe to be ranked in the top 10 in both T20I and ODI cricket. Now they want to best other Test nations. "In the next one or two years we will be a serious team and beat these Full Members very easily, as we have potential," Afghanistan captain Asghar Stanikzai predicted before the Super 10s.

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Shahzad celebrates the wicket of England's Ben Stokes // Getty

Yet, if they are to realise their potential, Afghanistan need more matches and urgently. Outside tournaments, Afghanistan have only ever played a derisory three matches against the top nine Test nations. Beyond their last WT20 game, Afghanistan have no confirmed fixtures against Test opposition for the rest of 2016. Switching the WT20 from every two years to four, and contracting the 2019 World Cup to ten teams, will both make it harder for Afghanistan to face down the elite in the future.

While Afghanistan have finished playing in India for now, they will soon be back, at their new home ground in Greater Noida, only a few miles from New Delhi. Those intoxicated by Shahzad and co should hope that Test teams willingly take up Afghanistan’s offer to play full internationals there. For all of the romance of Afghanistan’s journey, what the side can achieve next will largely be determined by whether Test nations give them the support, and above all the fixtures, that they need.