| ||The rise of the fearless Afghanistan cricket team is the most heart-warming story in contemporary cricket|
By Scyld Berry
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In his brilliant online column, Scyld Berry praises the Afghanistan cricket team for coming so far, so fast, in such adverse circumstances.
It is the happiest story in contemporary cricket, even if events overall in Afghanistan constitute the world’s most tragic story of the last decade.
The rise of cricket in Afghanistan has been the sport’s finest development since the ICC imposed two umpires from neutral countries in every Test match and thereby removed the allegations of racism.
From a strip of concrete on the scrubby plain of a refugee camp in Pakistan came this new force, the players celebrating every step of their unprecedented journey and taking nothing for granted.
They started playing against Japan and Jersey in Division Five of the ICC’s world league - and this weekend, four years on, they will arrive in Dublin to play one-day internationals against Ireland, the strongest country outside the Test-playing nations.
The internationals next week should be well-contested too because the last time these two countries met, Ireland needed all the experience of county cricket that their players have accumulated AND a special piece of batting to beat Afghanistan. It came from Paul Stirling - liable to follow Eoin Morgan from Middlesex into England’s limited-overs side - who hit the second fastest 50 in T20 internationals.
The Afghans lack several essentials at present, understandably, but they also have their own particular strengths: the zeal they bring to their cricket, and their fearlessness, and their physical toughness.
In that last game against Ireland, the final of the ICC World Twenty20 qualifiers, the Afghan opener Karim Sadiq pulled the first ball of the game for six - from Boyd Rankin, a serious Warwickshire pace bowler.
The last two balls of Afghanistan’s innings were bowled by Trent Johnston, the wily Australian medium-pacer, to Gulbardin Naib. Gulbardin was a bit of a star in the wonderful film ‘Out of the Ashes’ which had followed the Afghan team on its journey up from Division Five that had started in Jersey.
Gulbardin had pumped iron in a basic gym in Kabul. Aged 19, he had a whole family to feed, so he was driven to succeed. But his head couldn’t help turning when the team arrived in Jersey and he saw young women with exposed midriffs walking down the street.
After that tour Gulbardin had been dropped, but he pumped even more iron and worked on his batting and pace bowling. And when Johnston bowled him the last two balls of Afghanistan’s innings in Dubai, he pummelled them both for six.
Afghanistan now have better pace bowling resources than Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. Hamid Hasan is a cut above anyone else outside the Test-playing nations. They do not have a first-class domestic competition yet, although something could be based on their two new stadia in Kabul and Jalalabad, but at least they have the basic fuel for Test cricket, which pace bowling is.
As for growth potential, Afghanistan were reeling in April when they chased 233 to beat the Netherlands in a four-day first-class game - a Netherlands team containing a South African first-class player and a couple of Australians experienced in the Sheffield Shield. Along came an 18 year-old wicketkeeper on his first-class debut, Afsar Khan, to score an unbeaten 84 and take Afghanistan home.
Their biggest deficiency is artlessness, especially when batting against spin. A fielder at long-on is someone to clear. Although their coach Kabir Khan will tell them to push a single to long-on, or aim for deep midwicket where no fielder is, machismo is more instinctively appealing.
So working the ball around and manipulating the field will be key areas against Ireland in the 50-over internationals next week - and again in September when Afghanistan play England and India in their qualifying group of the World T20 finals in Sri Lanka.
More than anything though, Afghanistan’s cricketers deserve to be congratulated for coming so far, so fast, in such adverse circumstances. In all its history this sport has never seen anything like them.