Utter chaos – the overriding subtext of Afghanistan’s World Cup so far ©Getty
The playing of the Elton John and George Michael ballad ‘Don’t let the sun go down on me‘ added a poignant touch at Sophia Gardens. Not only had the sun just begun bathing the beautiful stadium with its shine after days of gloom, but the legendary Sir Elton John himself was out to perform this 1974 hit about unrequited love at the Cardiff City Stadium on his farewell Yellow Brick Road tour.
About a few minutes after the scheduled start of the concert less than two miles away from Sophia Gardens, the sun went down on Afghanistan for the fourth straight time in this World Cup. True to spirit, the spunky Aftab Alam kept the fight going through to the wire, bouncing Andile Phehlukwayo with South Africa needing five runs to win to loud cheers from the Afghan fans, many of whom had made a three-hour trip down from Stoke-on-Trent. When Phehlukwayo smashed a six in the next over to close out a nine-wicket win, the same bunch in the crowd were hushed into a deathly silence, as if something unexpected had just taken place.
“Ooooh!, people back home have very high expectations from us. They want us to win every game. They are coming and supporting us from all around the world. They do not want us to lose the games at all,” Hashmatullah Shahidi remarked with a shrug at the end of the game.
All too often, reality doesn’t match the hype, and anticipation is usually followed by disappointment. When Afghanistan toppled Pakistan in a warm-up at Bristol, there was a sense that the team, just a year on since becoming an ICC full-member, was taking strides more rapid than the ones it had already taken to make it to a 10-team World Cup.
“We have three players playing the big league, we are much more mature than were at the last World Cup. From the last one year we are full members and it is the best feeling in the world for us. There are a lot of problems in our country and cricket is one reason that gives people happiness. So we are very eager to do well” Shahidi said.
Four matches into the tournament, chaos is the overriding subtext of the Afghanistan campaign, as opposed to maturity. Nothing exemplified it more than the team’s two most experienced players – Rashid Khan and Gulbadin Naib – comically combining to let an under-pressure Hashim Amla off the hook in Cardiff. In the fifth over of the chase, Rashid pulled off a brilliant diving save at cover off an Amla drive, only to succumb to the adrenaline of the feat and throw the ball waywardly past the stumps. The captain, who was supposed to be backing up, was late to his task and decided to use fancy footwork instead to get the ball. He tripped over and Amla added two to his book.
There will be a sense through those blue-tinted Afghani spectacles that the team has been cheated by fate, by misfortune of the toss and the green on the surfaces that has overstayed its welcome. Yet a lot of Afghanistan’s chaos is self-inflicted. The pre-tournament captaincy change from Asghar Afghan to Gulbadin Naib gave the pot its first stir. Senior players came out in support of the veteran skipper, the coach said he had no idea about the plan to change captaincy and Naib found himself learning the protocol to meet the Queen.
Naib is an honest trier, but doesn’t have the authority or the nous of Asghar. When they played on an even greener Cardiff pitch against Sri Lanka a week ago, they picked only two frontline seamers – Sri Lanka had four – both of whom reacted to the windfall of the toss win by collectively hitting every blade of grass in a generous first spell.
The tumult with the batting is at one level higher. Naib wants his batsmen to last 50 overs when opener Hazratullah Zazai is yet to play 50 balls in an ODI innings. So, Afghanistan overcompensated against South Africa. At the 20th over mark, when teams went off for a second rain delay, 73% off the balls faced were not scored off. That had an effect in a dramatic post-rain period when they lost 5 for 8.
The one batsman who could have balanced attack and defence at the top – Mohammad Shahzad – was unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament on fitness grounds. His absence needed two replacements – a batsman and a keeper. As a result, another bowler – Mujeeb Ur Rahman – had to be sacrificed.
To add a meaty layer to the growing mound of problems, Naib also curiously dropped the one middle-order batting insurance he did have in the side – Najibullah Zadran – to account for the return of the “more senior” Asghar Afghan into the XI. And Asghar, who prescribed 85mph as the optimum speed setting on the bowling machine to everyone who entered the indoor nets in Cardiff, fell to an 85kph doosra from Imran Tahir, the kind of delivery that was being bowled at an empty stump on the adjacent indoor net by Rashid Khan.
Afghanistan have been so accustomed to making rapid progress that this reality check on a stage such as the World Cup is understandably daunting. Desperately flapping through chaos may have got them here, but those quick fixes will take them no further in a World Cup.
What they require most is a dose of the anti-chaos, realisation that every tug of the hat will not bring out a rabbit. Sometimes attrition through precision is a viable alternative. They need only to look at India for inspiration. India went through two World Cups with a solitary win before things fell into place in the third. Afghanistan already have their one win from their first edition, and have five more games to go in their second. Breathe and the sun will rise once more.