Afghanistan players celebrate their victory against Pakistan in Chennai, October 23, 2023
FOR THE BRIEFEST of seconds there, he thought he missed the joke. Squinting at the laughing press, Jonathan Trott—the former England batsman who currently helms the coaching staff of the Afghanistan cricket team—shrugged and looked perplexed, and a hush fell over the room. A moment earlier in the press conference room situated in the bowels of the Arun Jaitley Stadium in New Delhi, Trott was posed this question by a reporter: “I just want to ask… [pregnant pause]… will Afghanistan be able to beat England?” Trott nodded back at her and said: “Will we be able to beat England? Definitely!” And the room echoed with roaring laughter.
It was a fair question, even if a little too direct for the ebbs and flows of a press conference. For context, Afghanistan had on that day lost their second game in a row, to India in Delhi after having already been beaten by Bangladesh in their tournament opener in Dharamshala, making it two straight defeats to begin their World Cup 2023 campaign. For even more context on why the question held water, Afghanistan were on a 14-match losing streak across three 50-over World Cups, with their only ever win at this stage coming against (then) fellow featherweights, Scotland, in 2015. On the other hand, mighty England, Afghanistan’s following opponents, were not just the defending champions but also one of the great white-ball teams of all time, having won the T20 World Cup last year to become the first side to hold both World Cup trophies at the same time.
Trott waited for the last of the giggles to ripple out and doubled down on his answer to show just how serious he was. “Definitely. If it’s a two-horse race, anybody can win,” he said. “So, that’s a ‘certainly’ [for the question] with the kind of players that we have. We certainly have match winners… It’s all about getting together a good 100 overs. That’s the next challenge for my boys. And they’re working really hard towards that. So, hopefully, on the 15th [of October], that’ll be the day.”
Not only was it their day (night, actually, for they pulled off their first win of this World Cup at about 9PM IST), but also the beginning of their week, fortnight, and month even. For, Afghanistan turned into by far the most electric team of the now-concluded group stages; ironically, is the exact opposite of a flat and woeful England side. With the spectators on the terraces of the Delhi stadium—studded with long-time Afghan refugees who call Delhi home—wholly behind the underdogs, Afghanistan put up a spirited show of 284 runs after being put in to bat by England captain Jos Buttler. Just like with their batting innings, where everyone from top-order bats such as Rahmanullah Gurbaz (80 runs) to the wicketkeeper Ikram Alikhil (58) to even the lower order in Mujeeb Ur Rahman (28) and Rashid Khan (23) chipped in with essential knocks, all their specialist bowlers took wickets to restrict the title holders to 215.
The word “upset” is casually used in cricket (or sport for that matter) to describe such results. But Hashmatullah Shahidi’s men—young and powerful, most of them—would go on to prove that their first win of their World Cup was no fluke; and neither was it their last. They would scalp Pakistan and Sri Lanka in two out of their next three matches—both former 50-over World Cup champions—to have a realistic shot at qualifying for the semifinals. A berth in the top-four would’ve all but become an incredible reality had they just dismissed Australia’s Glenn Maxwell on any one of the three occasions he had granted them in the space of 10 balls before he composed the most miraculous essay in the history of ODI cricket.
In what was surely the match of this World Cup (and perhaps several others), Afghanistan posted 291 runs on a Mumbai wicket that is conducive for run-scoring. Yet, in their response under the Wankhede lights, the five-time champions found themselves reduced to a score of 91 for the loss of seven wickets and were pretty much out for the count. The Aussies would have surely been dead and buried when Maxwell nearly made it eight-down by offering two catches that were put down and an upheld LBW decision that saw him halfway to the dressing room before the review system overturned the decision. Then, madness ensued as Maxwell, unable to walk even as he suffered from full-body cramps, turned into an all-time legend with a knock of 201 to ensure Australia qualified in Afghanistan’s stead.
That’s what it took to finally quell Afghanistan’s spirit, a once-in-a-sport innings. But no one was laughing at Trott or his dazzling set of cricketers now—all boys from a war-torn nation who truly believe that the cricket they play is the only form of collective happiness in a country that once again fell to the rule of the Taliban two years ago; a regime that severely restricts personal freedom, bans music and obligates the women to remain indoors. Yet, from this gloom has emerged glory; the glory of the kind that warms hearts and souls. Hence, Afghan cricket’s success—put on such vivid display during this World Cup—is perhaps the greatest and most emotional tale in the sport today.
“The national flag they play under no longer exists officially. The anthem they stand for at the beginning of every game belongs to a republic that was toppled two years ago. Yet, Afghanistan’s athletes have become the unlikely—and widely celebrated—heroes of the World Cup,” writes Mujib Mashal in the New York Times. In fact, Mashal, present at the Trott press conference in Delhi, asked the head coach about the natural disaster that struck Afghanistan at the very hour its national team was playing its first match of this World Cup in India, and how it may have affected the players.
On October 7, an earthquake measuring a magnitude of 6.3 hit the province of Herat in Afghanistan, killing thousands and flattening entire villages and townships. This devastation brought an already despondent nation to its knees, but at the same time, it brought a cricket team in faraway India together. “They feel for their countrymen and women and kids, and they’re doing everything they can to raise funds to support them,” said Trott in response to Mashal’s question. “Various players have donated a lot of money towards their own charities, organisations, and foundations that are doing as much as they can from here, from a remote sort of place. It’s a difficult time, but the players certainly know that their performances here will bring joy and happiness to the country, and they want their country to be proud of them.”
Indeed. Leading the charitable work was Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s first cricket superstar who receives a cheer that is otherwise reserved for the Virat Kohlis of the world. He really does, every time the leg-spinner takes the field anywhere in India. “Our team is on the ground assisting the victims, kindly donate/share if you can,” posted Khan on X, who then offered his entire match fee from the England game to set the stage. Leg-spinner Khan, the number one-ranked T20I bowler in the world, although not the captain, leads this earnest group everywhere—at evening prayers on practice grounds, with his IPL performances and titles and, of course, on the playing field with his wickets—again ending up as Afghanistan’s leading wicket-taker at this World Cup with 11 wickets. His teammates, therefore, have shown a great willingness to learn; not just from Khan, but from the venerated in their adopted country of India.
When the greatest of them all, Sachin Tendulkar, dropped in at the Wankhede on the eve of the Afghanistan-Australia game, the Afghans took turns to speak to the legend, sponging up everything he had to say. Afghanistan’s opening bat Ibrahim Zadran, dressed in a flower-print shirt, was videoed asking Tendulkar what it takes to hit as many hundreds as the Indian did. “The best thing to do is to not think about big runs all the time,” replied Tendulkar. “Just address that ball and play that ball to the best of your ability. Because sometimes we go too far ahead of the game. Batting in the fifth over, you can’t be thinking about the 45th over.”
Zadran did more than just nod along. The next day, in the Mumbai heat and against the Aussies, he struck an unbeaten 129—the first-ever century by an Afghan at a World Cup. “I said before the match that I will make like Sachin Tendulkar did. So, I’m very thankful to him that he shared that experience with me,” said Zadran in the mid-innings interview, when his knock still injected Afghanistan with hope of greater things. That took place, too, when their bowlers had Australia on the mat. But then Maxwell happened and at the end, the Australians in the dressing room balcony hooted hysterically, disbelievingly. And for the second time in this historical World Cup campaign that he helped shape, Afghanistan coach Trott perhaps did not get the joke.