Where all the talk had surrounded the India-Pakistan encounters in the Asia Cup – with the Asian Cricket Council ensuring the two sides at least meet twice in the tournament – the matches turned out to be one-sided affairs with India stream-rolling past a clueless Pakistan in both games.
And it wasn’t just these two games, the whole tournament was a dull affair, except for the matches involving one team: Afghanistan.
They came into the tournament with a side boasting some high-profiled spinners – arguably the best in the world, at least in Asia – but an infamous brittle batting line-up.
While their bowling was always expected to fire, it’s perhaps their much-improved batting performances throughout the tournament that stand out at the end of the tournament as they finish on a high with a thrilling encounter against India – the only unbeaten side in the competition – with a tie on the penultimate ball of the match.
Had it not for them, the five-time champions, Sri Lanka would still have been in contention, whom they knocked out with their very first outing of the tournament. In their second game, a dead rubber against Bangladesh, they improved on the winning margin, this time by 136 runs.
Both games followed the same script. Bat first, post a decent total for their bowlers to defend. And neither of them failed to complement each other.
Then came the next round. They tried to follow the established template of posting a target on the board. And they would have almost clinched a victory against a Pakistan side fresh from a humiliating defeat against India had it not for Shoaib Malik.
There were emotions. But they weren’t out yet.
Next came Bangladesh. But the template was reversed. Bangladesh decided to alter the course by batting first. The total was almost the same as Afghanistan had posted in their previous three games batting first. They were on course for the most part but perhaps lost some key moments, including that last over from Mustafizur Rahman. Another heartbreak.
But their best moment was yet to come despite their fate already sealed. Even though India rested five players, their lethal spin-attack was still there. They got to bat first. They posted their targeted total as well despite a collapse in the middle. And while bowling, they were down and out for most of the game. But then came wickets, slowly but they made some inroads. At 204-4, India required 48 runs in 68 balls. Yes, the best chasing side in the world. And from there, it came down to 7 runs in last over. And Asghar Afghan had saved none other their talisman Rashid Khan to deliver them success. While he couldn’t quite do that, this tie – which could have been a different result had Afghanistan run a bye on the last ball of their innings – will live in their memory forever.
Four years ago, Afghanistan got their first real go against the big players when they qualified for Asia Cup. They did get one win against Bangladesh, but it was a start for something special.
Now, with a 50-over World Cup, World T20, and with some of their players having exposed to the franchise cricket, Afghanistan are a force to reckon with. If their journey since the 2014 Asia Cup tells one thing, it’s the exposure of their players against the best, be it facing them in World Cups or the IPL. And with the show in ongoing Asia Cup, Afghanistan have proven enough to earn a few home series against the big boys, especially those visiting the sub-continent.
Afghanistan is a test case of how the big players can help a minnow side grow. The Pakistan Cricket Board – although not at the best of terms with their Afghan counterparts right now – helped Afghanistan to their feet by providing facilities and even including Afghan players in Pakistan domestic cricket. They were even the first ODI opponents of Afghanistan.
Then came a political tussle, but with the help of IPL and the BCCI, their growth continued. India also became the first Test opponent of Afghanistan earlier this year.
And now here we are, despite the close losses, they were arguably the second best side in the tournament. And with the Afghan Premier League scheduled for later this year, the Afghan cricket seems to be finding its feet on its own.
This is exactly where countries like England messed up. Let alone expanding in Europe, they couldn’t help do it with their immediate neighbours in Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands by arranging some regular games with them or the touring parties every summer.
At the end of their campaign, Afghanistan finish the tournament with two of their batsmen occupying third and fourth spots on highest run-getters in the tournament, and their superstar Rashid Khan leading the wickets-chart with 10 scalps with young Mujeeb Zadran tied at seven wickets with Jasprit Bumrah and Ravindra Jadeja below Khan.
The only thing Afghanistan lacked in the tournament was perhaps their nerves in some crunch moments. Their fielding remained average at best.
While the Afghan Premier League is definitely going to help Afghanistan cricket with a majority of their players rubbing shoulders with stars of the game and groomed under best coaches, there is no alternative to facing the best international teams in the world. And with the show they have put so far, they deserve much better international fixtures than they have till the World Cup next year.