Young Afghan side among the favourites for T20 World Cup, claims opener Atal

Published May 29, 2024
This photograph taken on May 15, 2024 shows Nangeyalia Kharote, an Afghan all-rounder, getting ready for a practice session at the Ayobi Cricket Stadium in Kabul.—AFP
This photograph taken on May 15, 2024 shows Nangeyalia Kharote, an Afghan all-rounder, getting ready for a practice session at the Ayobi Cricket Stadium in Kabul.—AFP
This photograph taken on May 15, 2024 shows Nangeyalia Kharote, an Afghan all-rounder, taking part in a practice session at the Ayobi Cricket Stadium in Kabul.—AFP
This photograph taken on May 15, 2024 shows Nangeyalia Kharote, an Afghan all-rounder, taking part in a practice session at the Ayobi Cricket Stadium in Kabul.—AFP

A young Afghan side with an average age of just 25 have vowed to give audiences back home a rare cause for jubilation at the T20 World Cup after a breakthrough performance at the 50-over showpiece.

Kabul’s skies were raked with fireworks when Afghanistan celebrated their stunning eight-wicket victory against Pakistan in the ODI World Cup in October.

They finished sixth, ahead of defending champions England — who they also beat — stoking hopes for the T20 tournament in the United States and West Indies beginning on Saturday.

“In the past when we would defeat a bigger team, our victory was tagged as an ‘upset’,” 22-year-old Sediqullah Atal told AFP on the phone from their training camp in the West Indies.

“The word ‘upset’ is no longer in the dictionary and we are ranked among the favourites,” the left-handed opening batsman said, insisting his team is “no less than anyone”.

Afghanistan has been through decades of war, but the country’s passion for cricket has never gone away.

“When you have the support of 40 million people and they motivate you, it is a feeling of absolute delight,” said 20-year-old all-rounder Nangeyalia Kharote.

Delight of supporters

It’s “a matter of great joy” to represent his country, though they must now “match the high expectations” of supporters, he told AFP in Kabul ahead of his departure for the Caribbean.

“The love from the Afghans both at home and abroad is remarkable,” Sediqullah Atal added.

The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB), which manages the men’s team, has the full backing of the country’s Taliban government, which forced the United States and its allies out of the country before seizing power in 2021.

The Taliban rulers, yet to be recognised by any country, have effectively banned women from sports however under their austere interpretation of Islam.

Afghanistan’s participation in the World Cup therefore comes with some controversy, skirting the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) rules which stipulate all Test-playing nations must have a women’s side.

The ICC has previously said the matter is “pending”, allowing Afghanistan to compete — although England and Australia have refused to play them outside the World Cup.

‘They are our heroes’

Despite decades of war and poverty, Afghan cricket has strengthened, with new academies, sponsorship deals and tournament financing.

Their first match at the 2024 World Cup is on June 4 against Uganda in Guyana.

“Our team has arrived and are playing at a very high level in a short space of time,” cricket enthusiast Afzal Khan, who trains at the Rashid Khan Cricket Academy in Kabul, told AFP.

“They are our heroes, they will have a place in my heart forever,” said the 19-year-old, who hopes to fill the shoes of Afghan captain and ace spinner Rashid Khan.

“They have struggled through lots of difficulties to bring the team and our cricket to this level.”

In an interview published by the ACB last week, Khan pledged: “We will shine well in this World Cup too, and match the expectations of our compatriots.”

Back home in Kabul, another young cricketer in training made those expectations very clear.

Naseem Khan told AFP: “This will be the best World Cup for Afghanistan”.

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