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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Taha Hashim

Afghanistan excel in exile at World Cup even if semi-final eludes them

Afghanistan's players greet their fans at the end of their win over Pakistan
The Afghanistan salute the Chennai crowd after beating Pakistan, a win that had particular resonance. Photograph: R Satish Babu/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps it was the stillness of Glenn Maxwell that did for Afghanistan. This is a side whose identity is characterised by an inability to keep still. It’s there in the chaotic motions of their attack: Rashid Khan’s whirlwind mastery, Mujeeb Ur Rahman’s wicked fingers, Noor Ahmad’s precocious left-arm tricks and Naveen-ul-Haq’s own take on Jasprit Bumrah.

It’s there in the endurance of Mohammad Nabi, who played for Afghanistan against Essex’s seconds at Billericay in 2006 and then four years later at their first World Cup. It’s there in how they’re always abroad, having never actually played an international at home. It’s there in the clips of them dancing away after beating Pakistan, with even their poker-faced coach, Jonathan Trott, forced into busting a move.

So perhaps the economy of Maxwell’s movement was jarring for a side forever on the go. Cramping in the Mumbai heat, the Australian all-rounder’s feet were glued to the floor and so it was all down to his hands, at the final possible moment, to fling away at the back end of his extraordinary double hundred on Tuesday. With Australia 91 for seven and chasing 292, Afghanistan had looked set for their fifth win at this World Cup, two more points bringing them level with their opponents on 10. Now – courtesy of a possessed Maxwell, a simple dropped catch and their negative net run rate – even if they beat South Africa in their final group game they are almost certainly out.

Whatever happens next, this still feels like a breakout moment for a team that have already had a few. Afghanistan’s first 50-over World Cup in 2015 was always going to be about just being there, so their one-wicket win over Scotland was a decent enough souvenir. Four years later they arrived in England with greater pedigree and Rashid’s genius well established, but nine games brought just as many losses. It was likely that things would go better in India, a country that has served as their adopted home for many bilateral contests. But early defeats to Bangladesh and the hosts threatened to suggest otherwise.

It took a meeting with the defending champions at Delhi to lift the Afghans, a 69-run win headlined by Rahmanullah Gurbaz’s 57-ball 80 and Mujeeb’s all-round display. That led some to ponder whether it was the greatest ever World Cup upset, but England’s subsequent misery and Afghanistan’s wins over Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands have quietened that particular debate.

Mujeeb ur Rahman of Afghanistan celebrates the wicket of Joe Root of England
Mujeeb ur Rahman celebrates dismissing Joe Root, his finger-spinning mastery bamboozling England. Photograph: Darrian Traynor-ICC/ICC/Getty Images

Rashid remains the centrepiece but the bowlers have shared the love, with no one reaching double figures in the wickets tally. The top-order batting has, aside from the odd Gurbaz onslaught, had an old-school air to it. They have acknowledged that the 50-over game requires a degree of measure, with 300 yet to be breached and 283 chased down against Pakistan with care and only an over to spare. Their three leading run scorers – Ibrahim Zadran, Hashmatullah Shahidi and Rahmat Shah – are all striking at under 80. Trott must look at Rahmat – who holds it together at No 3 and is less rebel, more red ball – and see a bit of himself.

Tragedy runs alongside this tale. Earthquakes in western Afghanistan last month led to a death toll above a thousand, with Rashid donating his match fees from the tournament to help those affected. The societal backdrop to a sporting win over Babar Azam’s team is Pakistan’s deportation of Afghan refugees as part of a new anti-migrant policy. And there remains the case of the other Afghanistan team, the female cricketers who were awarded professional contracts in 2020 but fled the country after the Taliban regained power the following year. They wait, in exile, frustrated by the International Cricket Council’s inaction and knowing that, at present, only the men are permitted dreams of World Cup glory.

That Ahmedabad colosseum, with more than 130,000 seats, will be the stage on Friday. The toss feels crucial against South Africa, who seem unstoppable when batting first but far from it when chasing. First-innings totals of 428, 311, 399, 382 and 357 have helped seal a semi-final against Australia. But they only just about got over the line by one wicket against Pakistan, were stunned by the Netherlands when set a target of 246 and were then bowled out for 83 by India last week.

Afghanistan will be buoyed by South Africa’s most recent capitulation and hoping that the Proteas, with another, bigger game already in the calendar, don’t dedicate their entire focus towards a group-stage hurrah. This may be the end, but another giantkilling will be graciously accepted.

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