The Afghanistan cricket team has enjoyed a remarkable rise over the past decade and are currently seventh in the Twenty20 rankings. However, the 2019 World Cup saw them putting up a pathetic show.
The nation’s rise in cricket had always been termed a fairy tale owing to the hardships they’ve had to endure in their war-torn country.
They secured its place in the World Cup in England and Wales by beating Ireland on its way to winning last year’s qualifying tournament.
They are more than just a feel-good story from a conflict-riven nation. In the 2018 Asia Cup, held in the UAE, they impressed everyone.
They beat both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and tied with eventual champions India.
But their build-up to the World Cup was marred with controversy.
Afghanistan’s implosion was one of the biggest talking points of this World Cup. In particular, the abject failure of their star player Rashid Khan has surprised a lot of the followers of the game, especially in India.
It all started to unravel a month before the World Cup when regular ODI and Test skipper Asghar Afghan was replaced by all-rounder Gulbadin Naib.
That set off a chain reaction with senior players Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan tweeting in favour of Afghan, providing the first indication of trouble brewing in the camp.
Just a day after the beating at the hands of England, the then-head coach Phil Simmons had promised that he would expose the truth behind Afghanistan’s shambolic build up after the World Cup ends.
The Chief selector of the Afghanistan national cricket team and former fast bowler Dawlat Ahmadzai had been involved in a war of words with Simmons. Ahmadzai attributed the team’s poor show to the coaching staff not being able to prepare the players.
Simmons hit back saying the chief selector was responsible for the entire mess, as he had removed Asghar from the captaincy just days before the World Cup. He had already announced that he would not be renewing his contract after the World Cup ends.
So, all was clearly not well even before a ball was bowled in the tournament. The issues apparently crept up with the sudden change of guard at the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB).
The long-time CEO Shafiq Stanikzai was replaced in March with former team analyst Asadullah Khan. A lot of the senior players had played alongside Stanikzai and were considered close to him.
Stanikzai had also been the manager of the squad before he became CEO of ACB. It is not clear yet if Afghan’s sudden sacking is linked to Stankizai being moved out from his position.
Then their mercurial wicket-keeper batsman Mohammed Shahzad raised a stink when he was deemed unfit and replaced after the tournament started. He alleged a conspiracy of vested interests within the squad and the board.
Shahzad had a few angry outbursts before he asked to keep quiet, lest he invites more sanctions from the ACB.
Shahzad and his partner Hazratullah Zazai, who famously hit six sixes in an over in the Afghanistan Premier League (APL) last year, were separated.
While the team management was fighting among themselves, some players went to a restaurant and were involved in a brawl with the public forcing the police to intervene the day before their match against England.
When Gulbadin Naib was asked on how his team would be able to focus on Saturday’s game against India when their selectors and coach were on a warpath, the skipper said with a stern face: “No comments, Sir.”
And when was asked as to what went wrong so far and how the team’s morale was, his response was: “The morale of the guys is that they’re just focusing on each and every game. We played badly in the last few games, but we did well against England. And England is a good side; we played all the 50 overs.”
At the moment, Afghanistan appears to be plagued with the same problems as other subcontinent sides, with politics playing a part in disrupting the Board and its functioning, resulting in chaos in the squad.
Afghanistan are the good-news story of sport. Everyone wants to see them do well. They bring joy. Sport craves these underdog, from-nowhere stories.
Afghanistan give the game stories; cricket provides this nation with something to hold on to. We all hope that they would take strength from their experiences and manage to turn the situation around.