March 27, 2016 — the day of the 30th match of the World T20 in India — was a day full of celebrations. The winning team was happy, of course. But that win caused celebrations among the entire cricket community. It was such a feel-good result that even the team that lost was celebrating along with the winners.
It was the day Afghanistan defeated eventual World Champions West Indies in a World T20 group match in Nagpur.
Mohammad Nabi, one of the biggest names in this Afghanistan side had famously said after the match:
“I think we have had enough of winning the hearts of cricket fans so this time we won the match.”
And now here we are, almost a year to that famous day and this Afghanistan cricket team has not lost a T20 international since. That win set off a world record run. For 11 matches on the trot, Afghanistan have not been beaten. They have made winning — hearts and matches — a habit. The previous record was 8 consecutive wins by England. Afghanistan have not just broken the record but have kept extending it in ruthless fashion.
But unlike that one win against West Indies, the record run has flown under the radar.
First, the facts. That win against West Indies is the only match against a full member team in this record-breaking run. Rest of the wins have come against UAE (4), Oman (1) and Ireland (5).
Now that the numbers are out of the way, whose fault is it that Afghanistan have been made to play with fellow associate members? It’s not their fault that they are too good for the opponents who come their way. It’s not their fault that they have to wait months and months to play top quality opposition.
Like the World T20 showed last year, it was not about that one win against West Indies. That Afghanistan team had pushed Sri Lanka and South Africa all the way in the previous matches. When given the chance, they have repeatedly showed they can compete with the best in the business.
Take their last three T20Is for example. Playing in Greater Noida against Ireland — the team, despite being an associate member, has much better facilities, a much better cricketing ecosystem and have been around for much longer — Afghanistan showed that their run is no fluke. It was a whitewash. A 3-0 win against perhaps their toughest opponent at that level shows this team has slowly but surely maxed out on their potential.
The first T20I saw them demolish Ireland by 6 wickets and 2 overs to spare, chasing a target of 166. The second T20I — a match that was slipping away from them due to a sudden out-pour in New Delhi — saw young leg-spinner Rashid Khan become the first bowler in T20I history to take a five-wicket haul in a two-over spell. A near-certain defeat turned into a comfortable 17-run win. The 3rd T20I was one that rewrote record books. Afghanistan smashed 233 runs in their 20 overs with Mohammad Nabi scoring 89 runs in 30 balls as his team scored 109 runs in the last six overs of the innings.
These are performances that should not just be celebrated but be viewed with a pinch of disappointment. This team is simply not being given the chance to show they can upset the full members, break free of the (disrespectful) ‘minnows’ tag and fry the bigger fish.
In the course of this unbeaten run over the past year, some good things have happened to Afghan cricket. For the first time ever, two of their players will be seen in the IPL — the two men who were bright shining spots in the recently concluded series against Ireland. Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi, both picked by the defending champions Sunrisers Hyderabad, will get the chance to impress in the biggest T20 competition in the world. The duo have been selected during the Caribbean Premier League draft recently — the same day Rashid took five wickets in nine balls against Ireland.
It is just recognition for their talent by the franchises around the world but are we any closer to see a team that has captured the imagination of the cricketing world take on bigger opposition?
Going back to Nabi’s tweet from last year, just saying Afghanistan cricketers are winning hearts is well past its due date. They have done much more than that, without getting the deserved attention. It really is high time the ICC started recognising that a bigger audience for Afghanistan is not just richly-deserved but badly needed for cricket.