ICC World Cup: Does Afghan upset win over Pakistan echo beyond the pitch?

The top order’s calmness in chasing 283 reflects a newfound maturity in Afghanistan's batters

Afghanistan cricket team (photo: @ACBofficials/X)
Afghanistan cricket team (photo: @ACBofficials/X)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

Reports of overzealous celebrations in Kabul on the night of Monday, 23 October, after Afghanistan posted an emphatic eight-wicket win over neighbours Pakistan may not ascribed to passion for the sport alone.

It was the underdogs’ first-ever win against the former champions in the 50-over World Cup, true, but the political undertones of the celebration cannot be swept under the carpet. 

The relationship between the two nations has been a strained one, due to considerable historical baggage — the most conspicuous one being charges of Pakistan providing financial and logistical backing to the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, on the other hand, has been distinctly wary of separatist movements in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistani Balochistan — not to speak of the warming relationship between India and Afghanistan outside of the cricketing context.  

This political context across the three nations creates a simmering tension between the rival supporters at venues around the world, wherever there might be equal-ish representation in the crowd.

I have been privy to a number of such contests, the last being a group league match in the 2021 T20 World Cup in Dubai — it resulted in rival fans clashing outside the stadium and giving the local police force a hard time.

The situation was a different one in Chennai where, thanks to the visa issues, Pakistan flags were few and far between. The Afghan crowd meanwhile — women and children included — had a ball in the stands. 

In the 50-overs format, which calls for a greater test of character and cricketing skill sets, the Afghan template had been usually to try and put a reasonable target on board and then rely on their spin power to defend it.

This time around too, the Afghan think tank decided to go for broke with a four-member spin attack.

And it did pay off, including left-arm wrist spinner Noor Ahmad, who provided the X-factor and claimed the key wickets of Abdullah Shafique, Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan.  

But even so, when Pakistan rustled up a par score of 282 for 7 after deciding to bat, it looked good enough to contain the free-stroking but inconsistent rival batters. After all, even four years back at the Rose Bowl in England, when Afghanistan restricted India to a below-par total of 224 for 8 and gave them a good scare, they had still lost by 11 runs. 

Not many of even the diehard Afghan fans would have wagered for all the top three coming up with half-centuries — not to speak of the calmness showed in the vital 96-run partnership between Rahmat Shah and captain Shahidi to take them over the line. 

What helped Afghanistan adopt such a cool, collected approach yesterday, after so many so-near-yet-too-far attempts, ever since they became a full ICC member in 2017?

The tone was set by the opening pair of Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Najibullah Zadran, who raced to the 130-mark by the 21st over. The 60-run stand between Zadran and the experienced Rahmat Shah provided the spine, though it could still have all come to nought but for Shah–Shahidi’s match-winning partnership.

So, the question now is: Are the Afghans then really poised to make the 2023 World Cup a "memorable one", as their captain Hashmatullah Shahidi said at the post-match presentation?

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