Afghanistan have made rapid strides in international cricket since making their maiden appearance in an ICC event during the 2010 T20 World Cup. In the years since, they would be going from strength to strength in the limited-overs formats with a number of their cricketers shining in the Indian Premier League, and the team causing the occasional upset against higher-ranked sides in bilateral contests.
It was in the recently-concluded ICC World Cup, however, that the Afghan Atalans truly announced themselves. Afghanistan had won just one match across the 2015 and 2019 editions of the World Cup — beating Scotland in Dunedin in 2015. They would, however, end up collecting four victories in nine outings in the 2023 edition in India, beating former champions England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka besides the Netherlands in what was a watershed moment for Afghan cricket.
All four victories were special in their own way for the Afghans. The 69-run victory over defending champions England helped turn the tide in their favour after they started off with consecutive defeats against Bangladesh and hosts India respectively. Their victories over Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, both by seven wickets, later in the campaign would solidify their march towards the semi-finals.
However, given the sheer history with their neighbours to the east along with the number of close cricketing contests that the two teams have produced — most of which led to clashes both on and off the field — the commanding eight-wicket victory over Pakistan might just stand out as the defining victory for a number of fans and ex-cricketers, including former captain Asghar Afghan.
In an exclusive conversation with Firstpost on the sidelines of the 2023 Legends League Cricket, Afghan explained the importance of Pakistan’s victory in further detail.
“Every win was our favourite, including the first one against England. But because of Afghanistan’s rivalry against Pakistan, with the matches between the two sides in the last four to five years being tough encounters, our boys enjoy playing against them.
“From Afghanistan’s perspective, the victory that helped them gain a lot of momentum was the one against Pakistan, which also gave their morale a big boost and infused a lot of confidence into the team,” said Afghan, who represented Afghanistan in 114 ODIs, 75 T20Is and 6 Tests in a glittering career spanning more than a decade.
The 35-year-old added that England weren’t quite the same threat as Pakistan in subcontinental conditions.
“Beating Pakistan in Asian conditions is tough, and that isn’t necessarily the case for England. If there is a match between England and Afghanistan in the subcontinent, it is England that will have a tough time and not Afghanistan. That’s why the biggest win for Afghanistan in the World Cup was the one against Pakistan.
“We had played a lot of matches against Pakistan, and a lot of them were tough matches. Every player wanted to defeat the big teams in the World Cup, especially Pakistan. It was a massive day for the Afghanistan team,” Afghan, representing Urbanrisers Hyderabad in LLC that faces Manipal Tigers in the final later on Saturday, added.
Afghanistan’s cricketing rivalry against Pakistan stretches back to 2012 when the two sides locked horns in a one-off ODI that was the Afghans’ first bilateral meeting with a Full Member. The Afghans had lost that game by seven wickets, but the meetings between the two sides would start getting a lot more intense in the years to come, especially during the 2018 and 2022 Asia Cups and the 2019 World Cup. And at least two of those matches (2019 and 2022) witnessed heightened emotions on the field along with fan violence off it.
Pakistan’s cricketing rivalry with Afghanistan, much like the one against India, is fueled by non-cricketing factors like cross-border tensions as well as the treatment meted out by Islamabad towards millions of Afghan refugees settled along the northwestern part of the country.
Afghanistan did end their winless run across formats against Pakistan in a T20I series in Sharjah in March. Those victories, however, would have paled in comparison to beating their neighbours in the biggest cricketing event of them all, that too in dominant fashion.
Afghan revealed he was watching the Pakistan game in Kabul and described the atmosphere in the capital following the victory.
“The government was planning to make announcements in the streets and in mosques asking citizens to avoid stepping out of their homes to celebrate (with a round of firing). I said it would be a futile exercise as there would be precious little to stop Afghans from proceeding with their celebratory firing.
“Afghanistan went on to defeat Pakistan rather easily, and there was so much firing across the entire country and not just Kabul. There wasn’t one household, neighbourhood or province that did not witness celebratory firing. The entire country was in a jubilant mood, all the more so because it was a dream for so many to see us beat Pakistan in a big tournament,” Afghan said.
“I did enjoy that victory a lot, although I did have to tell my kids to shift to the basement and not step out till the firings had receded. I found plenty of cartridges on the terrace of our house the following morning. That is something that you cannot deny to the Afghans. That was the day when Afghanistan had become united as one. Cricket is something that brings everyone in this country together, unites them,” the middle-order batter added.
We were very much at home in India
Afghanistan started off on a shaky note, losing three of their first four outings. The Hashmatullah Shahidi-led side, however, would bounce back with three consecutive wins starting with Pakistan, and would at one point join India and South Africa among the teams in contention for a place in the semi-finals, which would have been their maiden appearance in the knockout stage of an ICC World Cup — ODI or T20.
And they nearly sealed their place in the top four after setting eventual winners Australia an improbable 292-run target in Mumbai and later reducing them to 91/7. That was until an injured Glenn Maxwell (201 not out) decided to come to his team’s rescue with a once-in-a-lifetime knock, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Afghans would then go down fighting against South Africa in their final game in Ahmedabad to finish at the sixth position, just below Pakistan.
Looking back at Afghanistan’s campaign, Afghan felt the side should have made it to the last four given they were as accustomed to these conditions as hosts India were. He also felt things would have gone very differently for them had they managed to get the better of Bangladesh, a side they had been beating regularly across formats in recent months but failed to get the better off in their tournament opener in Dharamsala.
“I had the belief that Afghanistan would go on to play in the knockouts because India has been our home ground and we are quite familiar with the conditions here. India has been our home for seven to eight years and we’ve played in cities such as Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai. So it wasn’t just home conditions for Team India alone, we were very much at home too.
“Unfortunately, we lost our first match (against Bangladesh). Had we played a bigger team in our opening game, then we might have beaten Bangladesh easily later in the tournament. Because the first match of a tournament does come with a lot of pressure, and nobody really knows what to expect. On paper as well as on the ground, our team was better than Bangladesh because we had beaten them in a variety of conditions over the last two-three years,” Afghan added.
The ex-captain, however, did add that the team couldn’t afford to rest on their laurels for long, and would have to work harder given the expectations harboured by fans had shot up several notches after a stellar World Cup campaign.
“Winning matches the way we did in the World Cup leads to greater expectations from supporters. In turn, we have to work even harder to prove that such a performance wasn’t just luck and that we actually are capable of such wins on a regular basis.
“The team will have to work even harder, play more matches and the rest of the cricketing world should also support Afghanistan cricket. If there’s one thing that brings a smile to the face for Afghans, it’s cricket,” Afghan concluded.