Just a decade ago, Afghanistan was without a national cricket team while Canada was still basking in the glow of its qualification for the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.
Ranked 90th in the world – the lowest possible ranking at the time – after the Afghan Cricket Federation registered with the International Cricket Council (ICC) in the summer of 2001, Afghanistan is now ranked 14th in the ICC global rankings, a notch ahead of 15th place Canada.
Starting at the bottom, the war-ravaged country captured the ICC Division five, four and three tournaments between May 2008 and February 2009 to earn a place in the 2010 World Cup qualifying series in South Africa where they finished fifth and in the process qualified for One Day International (ODI) status. The top four teams participated in this year’s World Cup final.
In February 2010, Afghanistan emerged victorious in the World Twenty/20 qualifying competition in the United Arab Emirates and returned home to a heroes’ welcome. Nine months later, the team lost to Bangladesh by five wickets in the Asian Games final and placed fifth last April in the 18-team Asia Cricket Council 50-overs tournament in Malaysia.
In addition, Afghanistan won the 2009-10 four-day Intercontinental Cup competition, posting 97 points which was 88 more than winless Canada. Their nine-wicket triumph over Canada at King City last week in the opening match for both teams in the 2011-13 tournament exposed the wide gap that exists between the countries in the sport’s longer version.
Afghanistan’s rapid rise has been stunning and no one exemplifies the determination, hard work and intense passion for the sport more than fast bowler Hamid Hassan whose family fled the bombs of Jalalabad when he was six for the safety of Peshawar where he and most of his countrymen learned the sport.
In a blistering six-over spell of sustained velocity and control on the opening day, Hassan beat openers Ruvindu Gunasekera and Hiral Patel and middle-order batsman Zubin Surkari with pace and found the edge of Jamaican-born left-hander Tyson Gordon’s bat to leave Canada precariously perched at 21-4 after 12 overs in response to the Afghans first innings total of 293.
He took 10 wickets in the match as Canada posted 130 in its first innings and, following on, was bowled out for 231 setting the visitors a victory target of 69 which they achieved for the loss of one wicket.
Manager Shafiq Stanikzci was justifiably proud of his team’s showing since they arrived in Toronto less than 24 hours before the start of the match after a long and tiring 17-hour flight via Delhi.
He spent two weeks in Pakistan waiting for the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad to issue the team visas that were granted on July 28.
Stanikzci was unhappy with the long wait to secure the travel documents.
“I did not have an appointment, but I was representing a national cricket team and I felt an exception could have been made,” he said. “On one occasion, I had to stand for four hours in the blazing hot sun before I was escorted inside the High Commission where I had to wait another two hours for service. Another time, I was in the sun for three hours before getting inside. The treatment from the staff there also left a lot to be desired.”
In September 2009, five Afghan players and their coach defected and remained in Canada after the International Cricket Council (ICC) Under-19 World Cup qualifier in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Stanikzci’s disgust and resentment was obvious when one of the absconders approached him on the opening day of the Intercontinental Cup match.
“I refused to shake his hand or acknowledge him and I made it perfectly clear to my team they should do the same if any of those players who stayed back in Canada came up to them while we are here,” said Stanikzci. ‘What they did was wrong and disrespectful to our country and will not be tolerated. They are not our friends anymore and we will ignore them.”
Left-arm spinner Hamza Hotak and 23-year-old fast bowler Dawlat Zadran are the recent additions to the side. While 19-year-old Hotak came through the youth system, Zadran’s talent was spotted during the domestic competition that attracts 28 of the country’s 34 provinces.
At last month’s opening of the Ghazhi Amanullah Khan Stadium – the country’s first international cricket ground – which is 15 kilometres east of Jalalabad, Afghan Cricket Board chairman and the country’s finance minister Dr. Omar Zakhilwal announced that all 34 provinces will have a cricket ground in the next two years.
“The game is definitely spreading and we expect to see more players like Zadran emerge,” said Stanikzci. “This is not surprising based on the success we have had. Cricket is the country’s number one sport.”
The team’s preparation for Canada included a three-game ODI series against Pakistan “A” and 15-day training camp in Colombo, Sri Lanka conducted by former India fast bowler Venkatesh Prasad.
“The preparation was excellent and we have our best side here and a complete package,” said Stanikzci. “This team is strong and we expect to retain the Intercontinental Cup.”
Based on their demolition of Canada in three days last week, Stanikzci’s expectations are justified.