Before the start of the ongoing edition of the Asia Cup, most cricket experts were expecting Afghanistan to put up strong performances – and they lived up to that billing – beating both Sri Lanka (by 8 wickets) and then Bangladesh (by 7 wickets) to become the first team to qualify for the Super Four stage.
The Afghans, who are currently ranked 10th on the ICC T20I team rankings, will now be up against Sri Lanka in the first Super Four match on Saturday, September 3 after the island nation clinched a thrilling two-wicket win over Bangladesh on Thursday to knock the Bangla Tigers out of the tournament.
The two rather big wins against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (both ranked higher than Afghanistan in the T20 team rankings at 8 & 9 respectively) can’t really be called upsets, considering just how much the Afghanistan T20I team has steadily improved.
Image credit: Afghanistan Cricket’s Twitter handle
In a 2016 T20 World Cup Super 10 match, they stunned the eventual champions, the West Indies. That result was called an upset at that time – but things have changed a lot as far as the reputation of Afghanistan T20 cricket is concerned since then.
Afghanistan’s rise in T20 cricket has been one of the biggest success stories in the sport overall. The war-torn nation made its maiden appearance in an ICC tournament in the 2010 T20 World cup in the West Indies. They were awarded Test status in 2017 and have qualified for all the major international tournaments since then.
Afghanistan largely owes its success to some of the best T20 players around these days – the likes of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Mujeeb Ur Rahman and Najibullah Zadran are world-class players. They have sharpened their skills while playing cricket around the world including in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Rashid and Mujeeb are currently ranked 3rd and 9th respectively in the T20I bowlers’ rankings, while skipper Nabi sits on top of the ICC T20I all-rounder rankings.
The team is currently coached by former England batsman Jonathan Trott and ex-Pakistan fast bowler Umar Gul who recently joined the team as the bowling coach.
Afghanistan does have a limited calendar in the ICC Future Tours Programme (FTP). It’s franchise cricket that has played a major role in honing the skills of the Afghan players, so much so that the likes of Rashid and Nabi have emerged as sought-after names in leagues around the world. Star spinner Rashid reckons stints in Twenty20 leagues across the world have helped most Afghanistan players at a time when there is a definite lack of international cricket for them.
One of the things that really stand out for Afghanistan T20I cricket currently is the number of all-rounders they boast of. An all-rounder, especially in the shortest format of the game, is worth his or her weight in gold. The current Afghanistan squad of 16 at the Asia Cup has as many as five designated all-rounders.
Add to that the fact that they have also groomed big hitters in their ranks. Afghanistan in fact hold the record for the joint highest T20I team total of 278. It was registered against Ireland in Dehradun in 2019. Czech Republic equalled that record by making 278/4 against Turkey in the same year. While most of these records and numbers involve ‘minnow’ teams, Afghanistan have shown time and again over the last few years that they can beat some of the big boys too. And they are only getting stronger.
They also became the first country in T20Is to hold the record of winning the most T20I matches in a row (12). Romania and India also have 12 T20I victories in a row to their names.
Afghanistan have a decent record in T20Is overall, having played 101 matches since 2010, winning 68 and losing 32, with one tied game. Their win percentage of 67.82% is one of the best amongst all cricketing nations and the best amongst those ranked in the ICC top 10 for T20I cricket.
The Board of Control For Cricket In India (BCCI) has also had a role in nurturing talent for Afghanistan. Greater Noida has been their home-ground in the past. The BCCI offered it to them in a bid to ‘expand the game globally and help associate and affiliate members of ICC’.
Afghanistan have changed home bases over the years, from Sharjah (2010-2013) to Lahore (2013-2015) to Greater Noida (2016-2018). They have returned to the UAE once again since early 2019.
By making it to the Super Four stage in the ongoing Asia Cup, Afghanistan showed what they are capable of. They are getting better and stronger with time in the shortest format of the game and it will not be a surprise if they humble some of the leading sides in the upcoming T20 World Cup in Australia.