2009: The Year of the Afghans
It all began quite inauspiciously: after a nightmare journey to Buenos Aires via Johannesburg, occasioned by the UK's last-minute refusal of transit visas, the Afghan side found themselves on 53 for six in their opening World Cricket League Division 3 match against Uganda.
Chasing a target of 217, the Afghans were rescued by a dogged seventh-wicket stand of 121 between Rais Ahmadzai and Samiullah Shenwari, and in the end they got within 14 runs of the Ugandan total. It wasn't enough for victory, but those runs were precious when, a week later, it all came down to net run rate in deciding who would progress to the World Cup qualifying tournament in South Africa.
Seven months earlier, when Afghanistan began their odyssey towards the 2011 World Cup at the Division 5 tournament in Jersey, such things had seemed unlikely. They nearly blew their chances of going further with a panicky batting collapse against Singapore, and it was partly due to Jersey's indifferent weather that they reached the final of that tournament and gained a place in Division 4.
It was already clear that the squad had real potential, possessing in allrounder Mohammad Nabi and paceman Hameed Hassan two players of real quality, but the batting was quite literally hit-or-miss. By the time Division 4 came around in October 2008, coach Taj Malik had been replaced by the much more experienced Kabir Khan, and the effects were beginning to show.
The bowling still saw them through, Hameed, Nabi and Hasti Gul Abed rescuing them, for example, when they were dismissed by Tanzania for 143 and securing an improbable 13-run victory, but there were clear signs that more of the batsmen were capable on occasion of disciplining their impulse to hit across the line.
And the squad was becoming more open as it gained more experience: the somewhat closed and suspicious approach they had shown in Jersey was beginning to give way to a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere.
On the other hand, it was hard not to be concerned about their absolute conviction that they were going to the World Cup. Encouraged, perhaps, by ICC hype and the fact that they were followed everywhere by a team of documentary film-makers who seemed just as zealous as the players, they seemed worryingly unperturbed by the magnitude of the task they were taking on.
In the end, of course, it didn't quite happen, but they came much closer than many of us would have believed possible in Jersey back in May 2008. They came back from that opening-day defeat in Buenos Aires to win their third tournament in a row, although they again had the weather to thank when they were facing certain defeat against the lowly Cayman Islands.
Hameed's 41 wickets in the three tournaments at an average of 10.78 and Nabi's 35 at an extraordinary 7.77 had been decisive in getting them to South Africa. The batting remained a problem, however, with only skipper Norooz Mangal, wicketkeeper-opener Karim Khan, and Rais Ahmadzai managing to average better than 20 across the nineteen matches they had played so far.
But the learning curve was still steep, and their victories over Denmark and then Bermuda in their first two group matches at the World Cup qualifier showed that they were not going to be a pushover.
They had found a new batting talent in Mohammad Shehzad, and it was his half-century against Denmark which saw the side through to victory. Those two wins almost ensured their qualification for the Super Eight phase, but with only four World Cup places on offer, reaching their ultimate goal was going to be no easy task.
A very convincing win by Kenya and a slightly tighter one at the hands of The Netherlands showed the advantage enjoyed by the more experienced and professional outfits, and even their highest international total so far – 251 for eight – wasn't enough to prevent the UAE from securing a five-wicket victory in the final group game.
So the Afghans went into the Super Eight phase as the weakest qualifiers from their group, and it would take a remarkable reversal for them to reach the top four.
That this wasn't necessarily beyond them quickly became apparent, as a five-wicket haul for Hameed took them to a sensational 22-run victory over tournament favourites Ireland in their opening game. Even a century by opener Noor Ali Noori was not enough to secure a win against Canada, however, and with that defeat the dream of World Cup glory effectively came to an end.
But second prize was far from negligible: entry to the High Performance Program, with its very substantial financial benefits, and the opportunities of participation in the Intercontinental Cup and ODI status continued to beckon, and the Afghans took their chance with a 42-run win over Scotland and a nail-biting 21-run victory against Namibia.
That was enough to squeeze them into sixth place on the table, just ahead of the UAE on net run rate, and they went on to underline their right to join the Associates elite (though still themselves an Affiliate) by repeating their victory over Scotland – more decisively this time – in the play-off for fifth spot.
By far the most encouraging aspect of their success was the progress in the batting: between them, the squad made twelve fifties and that one Noor Ali century, with Nowrooz, Karim and Shehzad all averaging over 30. By the end of the tournament they were consistently getting totals in excess of 250, something they had never achieved before they did it against the UAE in their last group match.
The play-off game against Scotland was Afghanistan's first-ever ODI, but by the end of the year they had played two more, sharing a two-match series against The Netherlands in Amstelveen. They did well to get within 8 runs of their opponents in the first match, and then a Shehzad century saw them to a six-wicket victory in the second.
Meanwhile, they had also been introduced to first-class cricket, a novelty for the team although several of its members had played the long form of the game in Pakistan or Sri Lanka. And again they exceeded expectations – everyone's, that is, but their own – securing a respectable draw against a Zimbabwe XI in Mutare and then recovering from a 74-run first-innings deficit against the Dutch to win a thrilling, topsy-turvy match by just one wicket.
The architect of the performance against Zimbabwe was Noor Ali, who became only the fourth player in cricket history to score a century in each innings on his first-class debut. And then in Amstelveen, in conditions which consistently favoured the bowlers and which saw the Dutch bowled out for 181 and 132 by the quartet of Shahpoor Zadran, Hameed, Mirwais Ashraf and Nabi, Noor Ali made a solid 56 to set up his side's improbable victory.
And then the Afghans wrapped up their year with victory in the ACC Twenty20 Cup, beating Singapore, Hong Kong and the UAE (the latter twice) on their way to the title. Nabi's astonishing 17 wickets at 4.59 were again a crucial factor, although it was with the bat that he turned the final, hitting the UAE's attack for a 38-ball 73. Hameed also starred again with 14 wickets at 14.29, while Samiullah Shenwari chimed in with 11 at 8.18.
The news was, of course, not all good: while the Under-19 squad performed magnificently to finish second in their World Cup qualifier and make sure of a place in next year's main tournament in New Zealand, five members of the side reportedly failed to return home, claiming asylum in Canada.
It is, by any standards, a remarkable story, given the background of foreign occupation, civil war, and endemic poverty and corruption onto which Afghanistan's cricketing achievements must be mapped. In such conditions it can hardly be expected that a stable domestic structure will be put in place quickly or easily, but there's no doubt that the talent and commitment exist to ensure that the development continues.
If the fans don't always appreciate just how long the journey is, their pride in what has so far been achieved is understandable.