Bengaluru: Like any other mega sporting event, the ICC Men’s World Cup has had its fair share of frills and thrills. India have been so impressive that conspiracy theories, however absurd they may sound, have been floated to reasonout why they have been so good. Australia and South Africa haven’t deviated much from the script while New Zealand have swung from exceptional to explicable.Few would have expected defending champions England to implode in the manner in which they did while Pakistan have had more than their share of controversies in a forgettablecampaign. Bangladesh remained stagnant even as Sri Lanka plumbed new depths. The story of the World Cup, though, has to be Afghanistan. A story of struggle, rise, joy and hope.
The so-called minnows stunned not one, not two but three former world champions in a campaign that reflected their steady growth. It’s not just the wins against England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka that were stellar but also the manner in which they were accomplished. They beat England by 69 runs, Pakistan by eight wickets and Sri Lanka by seven wickets, underlining that they have narrowed the gulf with the established forces.Though four wins from nine games don’t paint a pretty picture, Afghanistan’s performance has to be viewed in the right perspective. While they did suffer three big losses, overall they looked more polished, well-rounded andbetter organised than in the past.
Spin bowling has always been Afghanistan’s forte. It’s hard to recollect a team or an instance when four top quality spinners, all boasting endless variety, have operated together. They had a great role to play in the team’s best World Cup showing ever but the improvement of their batters was equally refreshing. From a “see ball, hit ball” approach, they have learnt the art of building an innings, displaying the confidence and composure they earlier seemed to leave behind in their change room. That welcome progress not lost on the head coach Jonathan Trott.
“Normally, with the side, you’d say bowling would be the strength,” said the former England batter. “So, you would try and put the pressure on the bowlers. But to be able to knock off targets in pretty comfortable fashion and responsible fashion certainly shows that we’re not sort of one way inclined to win cricket games. We can win in various ways.”
If India have lit up the home World Cup with one dominant show after another, Afghanistan have added extra glitter with their soul-stirring performances. Their heart-breaking loss to Australia from a winning position was a bitter pill to swallow, but that again boils down to the experience they will gain as and when they get more opportunities to play against bigger cricketing nations.
For a country with bare minimum infrastructure and even less pedigree, Afghanistan, who learnt their cricket in Pakistan while being in refugee camps, have come a long way. The challenge, however, isn’t just about sustaining it but also building on it. We have seen the fall of the once-mighty West Indies and the promising Zimbabwe and we are witnessing the sad decline of Sri Lanka now. And these are countries where the cricket culture is well trenched. What chance then do Afghanistan have if not taken care of?
Cancelling a series like Australia did early this year in protest against the Taliban-imposed restrictions on women’s and girls’ rights will not help Afghanistan’s cause. Though Cricket Australia’s concern was legitimate, they were barking up the wrong tree. And if they were really so serious about women’s rights, they should have — as pacer Naveen-ul-Haq pointed out — conceded their World Cup game against Afghanistan. It would have made more impact. Taking the moral high ground can’t be based on one’s convenience even if the cause is just, because one then loses credibility.
Be that as it may, Afghanistan have emerged as a ray of hope for a sport that is fast losing its base in some traditional cricketing nations and an inspiration to countries that are coming up the rungs.
(Published 12 November 2023, 13:20 IST)