Hats off Afghan Cricket Team

"Minnows" are small freshwater fish. The word has been regularly used by the media to describe cricket’s new and low performance countries, usually affiliate and associate members of the International Cricket Council. Afghanistan has received the title many times during its development of the game but perhaps now is the time for the media to drop it and move on.

Cricket Australia’s former test cricketer and current national talent manager, Greg Chappell, said to reporters that Australia’s 37-run loss to Afghanistan at the Under-19 World Cup in Abu Dhabi recently wasn’t "a case of the sky falling in." In Afghanistan, however, it was perhaps a case of the sky falling up, another significant step in the "sky’s the limit" rise of Afghanistan cricket.

The young Afghan team’s defeat of Australia and later Sri Lanka was followed two weeks later with the Afghanistan National Team’s defeat of Bangladesh in the Asia Cup 2014.

Perhaps they weren’t "sky falling in" events, but they were important victories for Afghanistan against full member, test cricket playing nations with long histories in cricket. Only 14 years ago there was little or no formal cricket in Afghanistan.

Since the Afghan cricket’s entry into the ICC under the Taliban government and the fall of the Taliban, the country has experienced a roller-coaster ride upwards in the growth and development of the game. This "dream-come-true" story has become legendary, if a little clichéd.

The commitment and determination of those development years has borne fruit over the past 12 months in new achievements for Afghanistan cricket with the qualification of the Under-19 Team for the World Cup 2014 and the National Team’s qualification for the ICC World Twenty20 Cup 2014 and the World Cup 2015. In addition, in June 2013 Afghanistan was raised to the status of an Associate Member of the International Cricket Council.

Afghanistan cricket has clearly reached a new high. It is becoming recognized as a significant presence in international cricket. It’s time for the media to drop the media’s "minnow" tag.

Greg Chappell’s comments downplaying the Australian under-19 loss to Afghanistan included recognition of the skill of the Afghans: "It was always going to be a challenge because we knew they’d have five spin bowlers who are all fairly experienced… It wasn’t as big a shock to us as it might be to people reading it from a distance. But Afghanistan cricket is a lot stronger than people understand."

Commentators during Afghanistan’s matches in the Asia Cup – wins and losses – have been generous in their praise of the Afghan team, especially of the bowlers. The national team clearly needs an improvement in their batting.

Mohammad Nabi, captain of the national team, said after Afghanistan’s loss to India in the Asian Cup: "We have not come here to win the Asia Cup. We are here to perform and learn something from the Test playing nations. We have done a good job, having won against Bangladesh. It`s a good sign for Afghanistan cricket. We are just missing good middle order batsmen. We will work hard and learn."

Umesh Patwal, an Indian coach who has been working with the team, told reporters at the Asia Cup: "Fast bowling comes naturally to them and the batsmen have inborn hitting skills. They are tall and robust. The batsmen play the fast bowlers more comfortably but they have to learn to bat against slow bowlers. They need to play with soft hands."

He believes that high level playing experience is all that Afghanistan lacks. "At present they don’t have many technical problems. When they play more regularly against top teams of the world they will learn these skills. They will be an explosive team.”

"If you see the younger generation, the Under-19 team beat Australia in the World Cup and as well as Sri Lanka in the last game. I am looking forward to them playing Test cricket,” he added.

The Afghanistan Cricket Board is aware of these and other deficiencies and is working hard to find opportunities for playing against full member, test playing teams.

The construction of the Afghanistan National Cricket Academy, funded last year by the ICC’s TAPP programme, due for completion soon will go a long way in forming a stronger foundation for high performance on the international scene.

Many of the young men from Afghanistan, Australia and Sri Lanka who met in the Under-19 World Cup 2014 will meet again and again in coming years as members of their national teams. Clearly, Afghanistan will not be seen as a "minnow" in their midst.

Afghanistan has provided numerous surprises during its fast rise in the cricket world and is likely to continue to do so with the innate skill and dogged determination of the young Afghan cricketers.

Afghanistan has been the underdog not just in cricket but as a war-torn country within the international community. The people are tired of war and violence and hungry for normality and something to bring happiness and celebration. Cricket is building national pride, joy and unity across Afghanistan in a way that billions of development dollars spent over the past 13 years has failed to achieve.

Cricket is showing the strong spirit of young Afghans to the world and having a very positive impact upon Afghanistan’s image internationally.

The future is looking very bright and cricket’s value for Afghanistan, its people and the cricketing world simply cannot be over-stated.

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