Thursday, September 20, 2012
Afghanistan wears cricket's glass slipper
By Peter Della Penna
Sports journalists and commentators are sometimes derided for inserting war metaphors into descriptions of action on the field of play. Athletes become warriors who fight battles in the trenches. Catching the other team off guard isn't just good coaching, it's an ambush. A high-scoring game is no longer a contest with an excessive amount of points on the scoreboard but rather a shootout.
For the cricketers of Afghanistan, these casual clichés are no laughing matter. They are things they have to worry about from the moment they wake up in the morning. Yet, they've found a way to not only survive the daily hardships of life in a war-torn country, but somehow prosper on the field of cricket.
Afghanistan's Cinderella story is not just remarkable for the heights it's climbed from a day-to-day life of despair, but the speed with which it's risen to compete in ICC tournaments like the World Twenty20. Cricket's historical powers such as England and Australia have been part of the ICC since its inception in 1909, with national cricket boards in those countries dating well before that.
Mohammad Shahzad, working the ball toward the boundary Wednesday against India, embodies the Afghans' gritty spirit.
Conversely, the Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed only in 1995, followed by Afghanistan being admitted into the ICC fold in 2001. In 2008, the Afghans were in the lowest level, Division Five, of the ICC's World Cup qualification ladder system for second-tier associate and affiliate teams. Eleven months and four tournaments later, they had progressed to Division One and came within one game of clinching a spot in the 2011 ICC World Cup, finishing fifth at a qualifier when only the top four teams gained spots in the main event.
In January 2010, the Afghanistan U-19 team participated for the first time in the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand. A month later, the men's team continued making strides by winning the World Twenty20 qualifier in Dubai and participated in the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean that April and May. That December, the Afghans defeated Scotland in the final to win the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the premier multiday competition for associate nations.
A 2010 documentary about the incredible journey of the Afghanistan team, "Out of the Ashes," which tracked the journey from Division Five on up, was co-produced by Academy Award-winning director Sam Mendes. Many of the players grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan after fleeing their homes during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It was in Pakistan where many of the players picked up cricket, and now it has become a source of immense pride for the nation.
The cricketers have also become smiling ambassadors who defy the images of violence and terrorism associated with Afghanistan. At the top of the list of beaming grins are those of Hamid Hassan and Mohammad Shahzad. Much of Afghanistan's hopes in this tournament are pinned on them. Hassan is the glamorous one who catches everyone's attention with his 90 mph bowling. Shahzad embodies the team's gritty spirit with his tenacity and aggression while batting. It's largely due to their efforts that many analysts believe Afghanistan is capable of causing a major upset in this tournament.
Against India on Wednesday, the Afghans nearly pulled one off, but a series of fielding errors brought them down. It also didn't help that Hassan wasn't playing because he still hasn't fully recovered from a leg injury sustained in January.
Afghanistan has another chance to make some noise Friday against England, a team that is no stranger to being knocked off by an underdog. In 2009, England lost to the Netherlands to open the World Twenty20 in London. Last year, Ireland pulled off an epic win against England at the 50-over World Cup in India. If Hassan makes it into the starting lineup against England, it could provide the catalyst for another fantastic chapter to be written in the fairy tale of Afghanistan cricket.