Asia Cup performance highlights Afghanistan’s impressive development

On Thursday, Afghanistan comprehensively disposed of Bangladesh in the Asia Cup. The win made it two from two in the tournament to date, with the comparatively inexperienced cricketing nation having hammered Sri Lanka just a few days earlier. 

In fact, cricket has been played in the country for close to two centuries, but never has it been particularly successful. It was only 23 years ago that the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) was formed - five years before the ban on cricket enforced by the Taliban would be lifted - while six years after that they became members of the International Cricket Council.

For the first decade of the 2000’s, however, much of the national side’s competitive cricket came against similarly unknown cricketing nations, or lower level county sides. 

The turn of the decade saw some success when Afghanistan competed in the Cricket World Cup qualifying tournament. Though they didn’t actually advance to the tournament itself, they did manage to earn themselves ODI status for four years. A major accomplishment at the time, to think that it was only seven years ago highlights how steep the curve of development has been for the team.

At this point in time they were still competing against other non-members of the ICC, but in February 2012 they had a breakthrough in the form of an ODI against Pakistan, their first ever outing against an ICC Full Member. Unsurprisingly, they were beaten comprehensively, being bowled out of 195, a total which Pakistan chased down with 7 wickets in hand and almost 13 overs remaining. A few months later they got another chance against an established cricketing nation when they faced Australia; this time, after the Aussies made 272, Afghanistan were bowled out for 206.

Regardless of the results, the matches provided invaluable experience to the team, and demonstrated the continual development of cricket in the country. In March 2013 they signed a two-year Memorandum of Understanding with Pakistan, meaning that in the lead up to the 2015 Cricket World Cup, Pakistan would provide assistance in the form of professional support, coaching, and skill analysis, to name a few.

In June 2013 they received another significant boost when they were nominated by the Asian Cricket Council to receive an associate membership of the ICC. While a step below Full Membership, this advancement nevertheless resulted in higher funding and exposure for the ACB. 

With these vital structures now in place, it came as no great surprise to see the team take huge strides forward, and ultimately qualify for the 2015 World Cup. An achievement in and of itself, the tournament would eventually highlight that the team still had a long way to go. Four of their six matches saw comfortable defeats to first Bangladesh, then Australia, New Zealand, and England. They did, however, put up a serious fight against Sri Lanka, and in their third match, on February 26, won their first ever World Cup game, albeit against fellow Associate Member Scotland.

Despite the relative lack of success at the tournament, Afghanistan entered the second half of 2015 with their tails up. In October of that year, they toured Zimbabwe for a five-game ODI series. With a 3-2 win, they became the first non-Test playing country in history to defeat a Test side in a multi-game ODI series. 

Late in 2016, they continued to take strides forward, this time in the form of an ODI series against Bangladesh. This was to be Afghanistan’s first ever series against a Test playing nation other than Zimbabwe. After winning the warm-up match, they lost the series, but did manage to secure an impressive victory along the way.

Arguably their biggest moment came last year when, as a result of this continual progress, they were awarded Full Membership by the ICC. An incredible achievement for a side which just six years earlier was being applauded for failing to make the World Cup, and a worthy reward for a cricketing nation which had been progressively putting structures in place to improve, and showing tangible results.

They played their first ever Test Match earlier this year, in June, against India. They were beaten comfortably, India putting up 474 before bowling out Afghanistan for 109 and 103. Clearly they still have a long way to go, particularly in the longest format of the game, but the development of a number of quality players has been plain to see for anyone who has watched the side, and now, in their most recent tournament, they are showing that in the form of legitimate competitiveness against quality sides.

The Asia Cup has been around for about three decades, and with cricket so well-represented in that part of the world, it is unsurprising that it plays host to some pretty decent cricket. Of the six teams playing in the tournament, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are four of them, while Afghanistan and Hong Kong round out the series. Clearly, these latter two are the underdogs, with one being placed in each of the two groups - and presumably, expected to finish on the bottom.

Afghanistan drew Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in Group B; the softer of the two groups, certainly, but nonetheless two tough cricket sides. Sri Lanka may be in the midst of a rough patch, but they are a cricketing nation with plenty of experience, while Bangladesh, though younger in cricketing terms, are on the rise in a big way, and find themselves not too far behind Australia in the ODI world rankings.

Afghanistan, in contrast, still find themselves in tenth place in the rankings, ahead of Zimbabwe, Ireland and Scotland but still below every established cricketing nation. If the results so far at the Asia Cup are anything to go by though, that may not stay the case for long.

Their first outing saw them come up against Sri Lanka, against whom they managed 249 in the first innings on the back of a 72 from Rahmat Shah, and solid contributions from the likes of Mohammad Shahzad, Ihsanullah, and Hashmatullah Shahidi. A defendable total but not an entirely safe one, they promptly rolled the Sri Lankans for just 158 on the back of economic bowling from all bowlers, and a couple of wickets from four of them.

They headed into their second Asia Cup match against Bangladesh with plenty of confidence, but the major underdogs nonetheless. Again they batted first and put up a mid-range score of 255/7, thanks largely to an unbeaten partnership of 95 off just 59 balls to round out the innings by Gulbadin Naib and birthday boy Rashid Khan. Again, their bowling attack showed just how dangerous they can be. Bangladesh stumbled along to the total of 119, taking 42 overs to get there, and losing by 136 runs. Rashid Khan starred with the ball, conceding just 13 runs and grabbing 2 wickets in his 9 overs, while Mujeeb Ur Rahman collected figures of 8.1-1-22-2 and Aftab Alam 5-1-11-1. 

They now head into the Super 4 alongside India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Afghanistan are certainly the outlier of the four remaining sides, and will face their biggest tests of the tournament when they face Pakistan and India. What they have shown so far, however, is that they are more than capable of matching it with sides far more fancied than they are.

Remembering where the team was five, ten, and twenty years ago, it is incredible to see them now already rubbing shoulders with, and beating, some of the most experienced and capable sides in the world. Just six years ago they played their first ever ODI against an ICC Full Member - Pakistan - and this was a breakthrough. Simply to be competing against such a team was an achievement, and they were subsequently punished by the far more experienced side. This Friday, September 21st, they will once again face Pakistan in an ODI. This time, however, they will head in not just happy to be there. They will be expecting to win.