It’s hard to think of a more marvellous cricketing story in recent times than Afghanistan’s qualification this weekend for the World Twenty 20. At virtually the same moment as thousands of troops poured into Helmand for the Nato offensive, a thousand miles away in Dubai, the nation’s cricketers were beating Ireland by eight wickets to win the ICC T20 qualifying tournament. It was their fifth win from six games in the competition, including victories over Scotland, UAE and – most resonantly, perhaps – the USA.
For once, Afghanistan – among the most benighted and ravaged nations on earth – can be associated in the public mind with something other than dead soldiers, heroin, and the Taliban. They are now officially the best T20 side in the world outside the Test playing countries. It’s a remarkable reminder of the democratising and empowering nature of sport. Afghans may not enjoy much in the way of peace, a stable society, or money – but cricket is blind to such factors. Cricket is only interested in what you can do with a bat and a ball, which is why a country so fractured, disadvantaged and derided as Afghanistan is now able to take the stage, as equals, in a major international sporting event.
What’s especially striking is how rapidly Afghanistan have advanced through the ranks of world cricket. Although the game was first played there during nineteenth century British military occupation, it seems only to have really taken off as recently as the mid-1990s, when Afghans picked it up at refugee camps in Pakistan, and then took it home with them. Cricket was one sport the Taliban deemed to allow, and the nation joined the ICC in 2001. Just nine years later, they’ve arrived on the genuine world stage.
I’ve not yet had the opportunity to watch any Afghan cricket. But I suspect they play with freedom, and originality. Unencumbered by expectation, history, media pressure, or the strictures of a national cricketing establishment, they are at liberty to play instinctively – to treat the game as a blank sheet of paper and interpret it for themselves, as individuals. Because Afghans have no retired players or curmudgeonly administrators breathing down their necks, they have no-one to tell them what not to do – to say that such-and-such is not the ‘done thing’. There is probably an innocence to their cricket – at least for now.
If Afghanistan one day become a true force in the world game, it will be interesting to see how far the unique provenance of their cricket makes it distinctive. Unlike all the current test sides, Afghans were not taught cricket by English people. That may have an impact not just on how they play cricket, but how they conceive it. Afghanistan was never assimilated into the British empire in the way other nations were. It was a military outpost – a strategic buffer against Russian ambition – not somewhere our ancestors went to live, play, and nation-build. We left behind no cultural legacy.
Cynics might argue that Afghanistan’s success is just a flash in the pan – that like Bangladesh they will flatter only to deceive, and fail to break into the mainstream. But that matters only if you believe the sole purpose of cricket is to become world champions. Cricket is to be enjoyed for its own sake, whatever you achieve. Cricket has almost certainly enriched the lives of the Afghan side’s players – which for the moment is all that matters.
Another month, another world cup
Speaking of the World Twenty 20, it might come as a surprise that we have another one due in April, just ten months since the last tournament. The reasons for this are unsurprisingly convoluted. The 2008 Champions Trophy was postponed to 2009 due to the security concerns which saw it moved from Pakistan to South Africa. The next one was originally due this year – but rather than have two in six months, it was recast as a T20.
Aside from the potential losses for West Indies (the hosts), the question is begged – why not just not bother? If there’s a failing of international cricket, it’s hardly that there are too few tournaments. Why not take the opportunity to give everyone a breather, and create a rare gap in the vastly over-congested fixture schedule?
The more often you stage a world cup, the less value it has. Pakistan’s victory in last year’s T20 was a great triumph for them – but the prestige of their champion status will be rather short-lived, unless they retain it. The drama of world cups relies on their infrequency – being knocked out is a terrible blow, as it will be four years until you get another chance. For players, they may no longer even be in the side then. But at this rate, we’ll soon start to think : oh, doesn’t matter – we’ll have another go next month.