Written by Sandeep Dwivedi | | Sydney | | March 13, 2015 6:27:23 am
Afghanistan opener Usman Ghani’s path from the nets to the dressing room can be traced by the trail of sweat dripping from the helmet he is holding in his hands. The 18-year-old looks drained and exhausted but he stops for a chat. With a strained look on his face, he wants career counselling. In all his innocence, the boy from Jalalabad is keen to know if he can play some club cricket in India. When you are a teenager, and bitten by the batting bug, political equations or cricket board dynamics are the harsh realities that aren’t allowed entry into into your dreamy minds.
Afghanistan’s World Cup will get over in little over 24 hours and the fear of isolation has started to worry the associate nation. Five star hotels, top-class training facilities, packed stadiums, translated interviews to the world media, soon everything would fade away once they board the Sydney-Dubai-Kabul flight this weekend.
With the 2019 World Cup to accommodate just 10 nations, Afghanistan will continue to be the story of struggle. It wouldn’t move forward from the ‘cricket healing a war-torn nation’ narrative. In case the ICC doesn’t change its mind, big-time cricket for everyone in the Class of 2015 would mean looking back longingly at the Australian autumn. Friends and family will get bored of tales from Dunedin, Canberra, Perth, Napier and, finally, Sydney. Though, against England on Friday, they have a chance to be Goliaths, pathfinders, legends. But still for the ICC they will remain the Associates, a curse that belittles triumphs and scoffs meritocracy.
Not surprisingly, the Afghans, enjoying the ephemeral joys of their Elite status, didn’t want their last World Cup training session to end. At Australia’s cricket cathedral — not my words, that’s what a local journalist referred to the SCG at the press conference — they wanted to stay on forever. Bowlers wanted to keep running on pitches that gave outstanding return on investment, batsmen didn’t tire of facing the challenge and everyone in the squad couldn’t have enough of all the sliding and diving on the velvet green field.
Looking at the bouncy, chirpy bunch at SCG, it was tough to imagine how they would adjust to the spartan surroundings back in Kabul.
Watching the boys in red, break into yet another hearty laugh, you ask the team’s media manager, Basheer Stanekzai, if this has been a happy World Cup for Afghanistan. You expect a rigorous nod but he shakes his head in disapproval. Listening to him, it’s clear that the coaches feel that the team wasn’t consistent. They did win against Scotland but it was too close. Against Bangladesh, they fancied their chances, but were bitterly disappointed by the patchy start that resulted in a loss. Someone wants the affable Stanekzai to look at positives. “But your pacers were very impressive against Australia. David Warner had nice things to say about Hamid Hasan’s yorker,” reminds a reporter. It doesn’t work. “You should have seen Hamid bowling a yorker before injury. He had those 146 kph toe-crushers, I tell you no one in this World Cup would have been able to face him,” he says.
So, he hasn’t lost hope. He talks about the several under-19 just-promoted boys, the expected easy qualification to the World T20 in India and the ultimate aim to get Test status. “We actually are a very good longer version side,” he says. But Tests are far away for a nation that is struggling to retain its place at the ODI World Cup.
Talent in abundance
Later, Afghanistan coach Andy Moles — that articulate Englishman whose quotes can make it to Hollywood’s inspiring sports movies with ‘last-minute goals’ without much editing — too said something along those lines. Moles, Afghanistan cricket’s best spokesman, has a finger on the pulse of the cricket world and has a knack of giving headlines. ‘Afghanistan needs fixtures, not facilities, says Moles’ — is expected to feature on many sports pages around the world. And below it will be the coach’s optimism about his team and a plan too.
“One thing that we’ve got that some of the other Associate sides don’t have, we’ve got a group of 20 or 25 players from u-19 levels underneath this group. And in that group there are probably I would say 8 to 10 very, very exciting youngsters, three of them being good seamers,” he said. Later, he would add how the Big Teams should think of playing Afghanistan in the UAE to acclimatise to local conditions before playing away series in the sub-continent. “If we can, through this tournament, win friends by impressing people, then Afghanistan is not just a war-torn area. It’s a promising group of cricketers. If we can persuade people to give us the opportunity to play against them in the UAE where we played our home games, then I think that will be the best way that our players can move forward and get better.”
But the best moment of the press conference was when Hamid Hassan was asked: “After the Australian game, some of your players said they were scared. Do England hold any fears for you?”
Very coldly Hassan replied: “Say that again?” The reporter did and Hassan would come with the punchline. “Scared? Afghan never scared, never scared.”
Press conferences would be so drab without players like Hamid. World Cups would be so poor without Afghanistan. How much you wanted ICC’s decision-makers to pad up against Shapoor Zardan before they sat to have a rethink on the number of teams for the 2019 World Cup.
England vs AFGhanistan: Live on Star Sports 1 & 3, 9AM