T20 WC: How Sharjah became a second home for Afghan cricket in early days

Rashid Khan & Co will have to learn to cope with pressure of expectations from now on

Jonathon Trott (left) and Rashid Khan after the semi-final exit. (photo: Getty Images)
Jonathon Trott (left) and Rashid Khan after the semi-final exit. (photo: Getty Images)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The Afghan fairytale may have ended in an anti-climax in the T20 World Cup on Thursday morning, but it will surely fuel their dreams for the future. The pressure of expectations got to them against a clinical South Africa in the first semi-final – and Rashid Khan and his men would do well to learn their lessons on how to handle a big knockout game in future.

From playing in Division 5 of the ICC World Cricket League in the company of Japan or Fiji barely 16 years ago to being among the elites of the game takes some doing – given the odds they have had to surmount along the way. However, the journey from here onwards would be even more difficult as they would be expected to emulate their show in the Caribbean every time and the random media tags like the ‘second best’ team in Asia after India are not going to be easy to shrug off either.

 The Afghans’ best-ever campaign in any major ICC tournament has, meanwhile, created a major flutter in the UAE – the Gulf country which could be called their second home without any exaggeration. While the Indian cricket board’s big brother role in their development gets enough mileage, and rightly so, the UAE’s role in throwing the doors open to the predecessors of Rashid and Ramanullah Gurbaz tends to get overshadowed with the years.

 The demographics of the UAE population, which has at least 400,000 Afghan expats settled there with large settlements of them in Sharjah, is believed to be a major catalyst of them welcoming the Afghan national team to play in the desert.

‘’It all started here with Abdul Rehman Bukhatir, the architect of the Cricketers’ Benefit Fund Series (CBFS), playing an instrumental role so that the historic venue can become their home ground. While the Afghan Cricket Board had become an associate member of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) in 2003, they had no infrastructure to play on turf at home,’’ said Mazhar Khan, the long-serving General Manager of Sharjah Cricket Council and a former administrator of Emirates Cricket Board (ECB).

Afghanistan captain Rashid Khan with Mazhar Khan
Afghanistan captain Rashid Khan with Mazhar Khan
Sharjah Cricket Council

A photo doing the rounds in social media during the Afghan campaign was that of a plot of barren, rugged land in Kabul which acted as their first ground for playing cricket in any form. The remnants of an aeroplane, which had crashed next to the ground, acted as the dressing room for the players and hence – there was an urgent need for some cricket gear if the game had to progress there.

Speaking to the National Herald from Dubai, Shyam Bhatia – an expat industrialist and acknowledged benefactor for the sport – recalled having played his bit in the initial days. ‘’It’s been 23 years since Cricket for Care, my foundation which had provided cricket equipment to various emerging cricketing nations, flew them some kits on a flight. Their national body had thanked me with a nice letter saying that our children – who have grown up amid the sound of guns and grenades – can now familiarise themselves with the sound of bat hitting the ball,’’ said Bhatia.

If the Asian cricket body had played its part in Afghan cricket by taking baby steps, they took a significant leap when the Afghan board came under the umbrella of the International Cricket Council in 2008 as an affiliate member, then an associate member and finally as a full member in 2017. They had, incidentally, qualified for their first-ever World T20 appearance in the 2010 edition.          

‘’I would say a major turning point in their fortunes was when Mohammed Nabi made his international debut in 2009. Rashid (Khan) came into the scene in 2015 and created an impact almost immediately. The UAE team had given them a great deal of match practice in the initial days and we had often beaten them. However, they started growing stronger with time and Sharjah was the de facto host for their international games,’’ Mazhar remembered.

‘’There is a great comfort level of the Afghan cricketers in Sharjah even now. You will find Nabi and his young son using our facilities here and the same applies for Rashid, now a global superstar, or Gurbaz,’’ the veteran administrator recalled.

When the Afghanistan board introduced the first edition of Afghan Premier League (2018-19), Sharjah was almost a natural choice as the league took place there in October. Kabul Zwanan emerged as the champions with Rashid the Player of the Series but unfortunately, the league has had a chequered existence.

‘’The Afghan players as well as their officials are extremely warm, down-to-earth people who wear their star status very lightly. Hopefully, their semi-final entry is only the beginning of some greater things,’’ he added.

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