Cricket World Cup 2023: Afghanistan are cohesive, driven to excel and intent on making a point

The memorable journey that they have chalked out in this tournament will be talked about for a long time

By Ayaz Memon

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Afghanistan players celebrates the wicket of Netherlands' Max O'Dowd during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup. - AP
Afghanistan players celebrates the wicket of Netherlands' Max O'Dowd during the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup. - AP

Published: Sat 4 Nov 2023, 8:05 PM

With four wins from seven matches, Afghanistan have been the toast of this World Cup. Three of these wins have come against major teams – England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all past champions -- which gives a good idea of how well the team has performed.

The bigger the opponent, the more impressive they were. To refer to them as minnows would be not just grossly unfair, but a malapropism.

What has caused this uptick in Afghanistan’s performance in the World Cup?

They have been a good T20 side, capable of causing upsets. But that is also because the T20 format is topsy-turvy. In ODIs, while the Afghans have always shown a good attitude and been eager competitors, they did not have the depth in talent, skills and mindset to excel.

Afghanistan's Rashid Khan celebrates after taking a wicket. - Reuters
Afghanistan's Rashid Khan celebrates after taking a wicket. - Reuters

Their main strength was spin bowling, led by the redoubtable Rashid Khan, which paid dividends when batsmen had to go helter-skelter in the shorter format. But in all other departments, the Afghans seemed to lack the players with the mindset and experience to go beyond T20. ODIs demanded a different drill and approach, which the Afghans did not have.

This tournament has removed many such compunctions.

While the spin bowling has excelled again, in fact, performed better than expected with Mujeeb, Nabi and Noor teaming up with Rashid to baffle the best, it is how well Afghanistan has come up in other aspects that have made a big difference.

Batting, considered their weak spot, has been a revelation. The top order, while not as explosive as India’s or South Africa, and bereft of star names, has been solid. The batters have shown resolve and smartness in combining aggression with defence to ensure they don’t flounder in reaching or setting targets. The fielding has been brilliant too.

Credit for this remarkable improvement in such a short time must accrue to the coaches and support staff, obviously, but most of all to the players. A cluster that has been together for almost 8-10 years, picking up skills on the international circuit rapidly, passing them on to newcomers and mentoring them both technically and in temperament.

The Afghans make for the most cohesive unit in the tournament and are driven to excel and are intent on making a point. Which they have.

In hindsight, the slip-up against Bangladesh early in the tournament has turned out to be a major setback. Considering how well they played thereafter, it can be rationalised that they had still not settled down to the conditions.

With two more points, Afghanistan would have been strongly fancied to make it to the semifinals. That possibility still exists, but entails them beating at least either Australia or South Africa – both strong teams -- in their remaining two matches, and then hoping other results conspire in their favour.

The difficulty quotient for Afghanistan to reach the semifinals is high. But everyone’s rooting that they do, not just because favouring the underdog is germane to sport, but for the spirited manner in which the Afghans have played has evoked the goodwill and admiration of all.

Getting into the knock-out stage would make for a dream script. Even if they fail to cut, the hardy Afghans have nonetheless chalked out a memorable journey in this tournament which will be talked about for a long time.

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