Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Endless struggle, undaunted spirit: The Afghanistan cricket story

From learning the sport at the refugee camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan has taken a giant leap, making it to their first ever semifinal in an ICC tournament

Published: Jun 26, 2024 10:30:13 AM IST
Updated: Jun 26, 2024 10:44:15 AM IST

Naveen-ul-Haq of Afghanistan celebrates after dismissing Mustafizur Rahman of Bangladesh (not pictured) to win and to advance to the Semi Finals the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Super Eight match between Afghanistan and Bangladesh at Arnos Vale Ground on June 24, 2024 in St Vincent, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines. Image: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC via Getty Images Naveen-ul-Haq of Afghanistan celebrates after dismissing Mustafizur Rahman of Bangladesh (not pictured) to win and to advance to the Semi Finals the ICC Men's T20 Cricket World Cup West Indies & USA 2024 Super Eight match between Afghanistan and Bangladesh at Arnos Vale Ground on June 24, 2024 in St Vincent, Saint Vincent and The Grenadines. Image: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC via Getty Images
 
Emotions took over as soon as Naveen-ul-Haq dismissed Bangladesh's Mustafizur Rahman to clinch the semifinal spot for Afghanistan in the ongoing ICC T20 World Cup 2024. Several Afghanistan players broke into tears, perhaps recalling years of struggle.
 
When people talk of Afghanistan, a country that has been marred with decades of conflict and war, cricket is probably the last thing on their mind. But the way the Afghanistan cricket team has carried itself despite all the challenges shows how sport can mend the spirit of a nation.  

Early Struggle

Although the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now ACB) was formed in 1995, it took some time for cricket to reach the grassroots. Initially, most of the Afghan players learnt the sport in refugee camps in Pakistan. Since all games were banned at home by the Taliban, they had to take part in Pakistan’s domestic circuit, which was a blessing in disguise as it helped them grow as players.
 
In 2000, the Taliban made an exception and approved cricket, and, in 2001, the International Cricket Council (ICC) gave recognition to Afghanistan cricket. That is where their long journey began. The team started by playing domestic cricket in Pakistan and gradually ventured into Asian regional cricket.
 
With their limited resources and conflict-ridden history, they didn’t make it big straightaway. But players like Mohammad Nabi—still a part of the team—gave hope to the other budding players that cricket could be the way forward. After early failures, they improved somewhere between 2006-2007 and won a couple of domestic tournaments.
 

Arrival to International Cricket

Afghanistan later played a few World Cup qualifiers but couldn’t get through. However, in 2011, they became the first affiliate country to get the ODI (One Day International) status from ICC and played their first game against Scotland. Till then, they had played enough T20 Internationals as well. In 2012, they played a few ODIs against Test-playing nations (Pakistan and Australia) after years of playing against affiliate teams.

Also read: T20 World Cup 2024: Ten players to watch out for
 
The consistent performances at the associate level earned them a place in the 2015 ODI World Cup, which was a massive feat for a team that had played all of its cricket in refugee camps. They could only win one match but some of the players showed great promise. The emergence of players like Rashid Khan, who went on to play Indian Premier League (IPL) and other major franchise leagues, made budding Afghan players believe they could do it too.
 
Around 2016, after having received some international exposure, their next step was to compete against top teams. They started it with a series against West Indies followed by a few more top teams. It prompted the ICC to give Afghanistan the much-reputed Test status in 2017 and they responded brilliantly by pulling off a win in its second-ever Test against Ireland.

Also read: ICC Men's T20 World Cup Trophy Winners List: From 2007 To 2024


The Change

Even then, for the rest of the world to take them seriously, the team needed to do something big, and it wasn’t coming their way. They had an ordinary 2019 ODI World Cup and couldn’t do much in T20 World Cups in 2021 and 2022.
 
Ahead of the 2023 ODI World Cup, Afghanistan made a few changes to the coaching staff, and brought in the likes of former England international Jonathan Trott as the head coach. They came all guns blazing in the tournament, defeating defending champions England and almost pushing out Australia.
 
Their campaign in the 2023 World Cup made everyone see Afghanistan differently. They failed to make it to the semis but their performance was a testament to their capabilities.

Afghan fans gather to celebrate Afghanistan's win against Bangladesh during super eight match at the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup 2024, in Khost on June 25, 2024. - Afghanistan advanced to their first-ever T20 World Cup semi-final after completing a dramatic eight-run victory over Bangladesh in a rain-affected clash at the Arnos Vale Stadium in St Vincent on June 25. 
Image: AFP Afghan fans gather to celebrate Afghanistan's win against Bangladesh during super eight match at the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup 2024, in Khost on June 25, 2024. - Afghanistan advanced to their first-ever T20 World Cup semi-final after completing a dramatic eight-run victory over Bangladesh in a rain-affected clash at the Arnos Vale Stadium in St Vincent on June 25. Image: AFP

Creating History

Now, came the ongoing ICC T20 World Cup 2024. With West Indies hosting the major of the tournament, Afghanistan saw a great opportunity. The pitches in the Caribbean were slow and would suit the spin-heavy Afghan team.
 
Afghanistan started with huge victories over Scotland and Uganda. The real challenge, though, was to tackle a strong New Zealand side. The Rashid Khan-led team did it in some style, thrashing them by a margin of 84 runs, helping them secure a place in the Super 8 stage.
 
With India, Australia and Bangladesh in their group, Afghanistan’s chances of making it to the semi-finals seemed an improbable one. They lost the first match against India but it didn’t bend their spirits. In the next game, they were facing Australia, the hot favourites, and beating the six-time world champions was a tough task.
 
But having come to this tournament with a different approach, the Afghans weren’t ready to give up. They stunned Australia by 21 runs, leaving the whole cricket world awestruck.
 
The job was not done though. They still needed a win against Bangladesh to make it to the history books. And it seemed improbable when they put on a meagre total of 115 runs. It again looked like, despite their fight through the rest of the matches in the group stages, they would fall short. But the bowling attack led by captain Rashid Khan had different plans. A four-wicket-haul by Khan and ul-Haq each snatched the win for Afghanistan from the brink and took the team for the semifinal of an ICC event for the very first time. It wasn’t just a win in one tournament, but a statement from the team they are here to stay.
 
 "It's something like a dream for us as a team to be in the semifinal. It's all about the way we started the tournament. The belief came when we beat New Zealand. So it's unbelievable. I don't have any words to describe my feelings. Definitely back home everyone is so, so happy for this,” Rashid Khan said after the match.
 
It’s still not smoothsailing for the people of Afghanistan, but they came out on the streets to celebrate this victory. Khan keeps referring to how cricket is the only source of happiness in his country. He reiterated that this semifinal berth is going to inspire the young generation.
 
"I think the semifinal is going to be a massive, massive inspiration for the youngsters back home in Afghanistan. We have done it at Under-19 level, but this level we haven't done that. Even Super Eight was first time for us and then in semis. It's unbelievable feeling … Yes, there were some tough times but we didn't let ourselves down and we always try to come back stronger,” he said.
 
Afghanistan will now face South Africa in the semis and, irrespective of the result, it will mark a new beginning for Afghan cricket.