“Pull up your sleeves, come onto the streets and start dancing, because happiness is rare in a poor man's life” – an Afghan poem.
From being a part of the ICC World Cricket League Division Five in 2008 to achieving Full Member status in 2017, Afghanistan's rise from being an unknown entity in the cricketing world to the upper echelons of the sport in a decade has been fascinating.
A country which did not have a national team till as recently as 2001, where war has left people with little joy, cricket has emerged as a major binding force, a source of happiness.
How did cricket find a place in the heart of the Afghans? Here, we track their journey.
Inception of cricket in Afghanistan (early 2000s)
As has been documented extensively, cricket was played by the British in Afghanistan in the 19th century, but it became popular among Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan in the 1990s.
With cricket being as popular as it is in Pakistan, it was little surprise that Afghan camps just outside Peshawar saw plenty of cricket action. In the early 2000s, as Afghans started to make their way back home, they took cricket with them.
The cricket board was formed in the 1990s itself, and the national team was formed in 2001, the same year the ICC granted Affiliate status to the Afghanistan Cricket Federation (now the Afghanistan Cricket Board). The team hit the ground running in the 2006 Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy, and they reached the semi-final. That increased the excitement among the Afghan public, and the next few years were full of extremely good performances.
The breakthrough in 2009
Under the leadership of Nawroz Mangal and with impassioned fans spurring them on, Afghanistan became joint winners of the inaugural ACC Twenty20 Cup in 2007 after the final against Oman ended in a tie.
The same year, Afghanistan won the ICC World Cricket League Division Five defeating Jersey in the final. They remained unbeaten in the ICC World Cricket League Division Four in Tanzania and then won the ICC World Cricket League Division Three in Argentina.
That paved the way for Afghanistan to take part in the qualifiers for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011. The side did remarkably well to reach the Super Eight stage in South Africa in 2009 but faltered at the last stage, where they lost to Canada.
However, their run helped them gain one-day international status in April 2009 – a phenomenal achievement considering they started out barely some years before it.
The highs of 2010
Afghanistan next set their sights on the ICC World T20 2010, qualifying for the event by winning the ICC World T20 Qualifier 2010 held in Dubai, defeating Ireland in the final by eight wickets.
They were all set to rub shoulders with the big boys on the biggest stage and they did, but not with much success, losing to India and South Africa to crash out of the tournament early. It was still a big performance from them, and they built on it by beating Scotland in the ICC Intercontinental Cup final in Dubai in December the same year to win the event in their first attempt.
First ODI and elevation to Associate status
Afghanistan played their first ODI against Pakistan in Sharjah on 10 February 2012. Although they lost the match by seven wickets, it was a red-letter day in the history of Afghanistan cricket. They also hosted Australia in a one-off ODI in Sharjah the same year. In 2013, Afghanistan was promoted from Affiliate to Associate member by the ICC.
Qualifying for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015
They had narrowly missed out on an ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 berth, but history was not going to repeat itself this time.
A clinical Afghanistan unit, led by Mohammad Nabi, beat Kenya by seven wickets to finish second in the ICC World Cricket League Championship in Sharjah. The victory meant Afghanistan, along with Ireland, would travel to the biggest event in world cricket – the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 that was jointly held by Australia and New Zealand.
They lost five matches in the first round, but on 26 February 2015, Afghanistan created history when they recorded their first ever win in a World Cup match, defeating Scotland by one wicket. A momentous occasion.
Success of the Under-19 sides
Like with most new teams, there was the question of the immediate future once Afghanistan had reached prominence. But in Afghanistan’s case, the next generation seems ready. They first qualified for the ICC Under-19 World Cup in 2010 and their best result came at the ICC Under-19 World Cup 2018 where they reached the semi-finals before losing to Australia. In 2017, the colts also won the Under-19 Asia cup by beating Pakistan in the final by a whopping 185 runs.
In the current Test squad, which we will come to in a moment, spinners Mujeeb Ur Rahman (17), Zahir Khan (19) and Rashid Khan (19) are all still teenagers, while paceman Wafadar is 18 and batsman Ihsanullah is 20. One might think the likes of Mohammad Nabi have been around forever, but the all-rounder is only 33, the only 30-plus member of the Test side apart from Asghar Stanikzai, the captain, and Mohammad Shahzad, the wicket-keeper batsman.
The pinnacle of the game
On 22 June 2017, Afghanistan were awarded Full Member status along with Ireland. Soon, the maiden Test was slotted against India, to start on 14 June in Bengaluru.
Afghanistan have been a force to reckon with over the past few years. Their consistent rise in world cricket has made people stand up and take notice, their Out of the Ashes story one of the most wonderful in cricket history.
Now, it’s time to take the next step. After having impressed in ODIs, especially, and T20Is, it’s time to make a splash in Test cricket, starting with the game against No.1-ranked India.