December 21, 2021

Michael Jordan. Lionel Messi. Mohammad Nabi.

These are the replica shirts on the back of the Afghan kids in the crowd. Mohammad Nabi walks his team out onto the field. Mohammad Nabi walks his team into the World Cup.

Afghanistan doesn’t have to rely on imported heroes anymore.

Hamid Hassan is strapping. Other words do not do him justice. He has large shoulders. Large hands. Large pecs. Large glutes. He is an immense hunk of muscle.

Hamid Hassan has an Afghanistan colours headband on. Stickers of Afghanistan colours on either cheek. He looks like a fast bowler. He bowls like a fast bowler. And when he completes his first ball, he has started Afghanistan’s World Cup history.

The crowd cheer like mad. Another cricket journalist says, “That’s a big cheer for a dot ball”. It’s not a dot ball. It’s a wide. They have cheered a wide. Their wide. Their first wide in a World Cup.

Hassan is one of the many players in this side who was a refugee. His family did not encourage his cricket. He cites Rocky Balboa as a hero. Hassan is more of a hero than any made-up character.

When his body is fit, he is one of the fastest bowlers in the world. He once took a five-wicket haul in an ODI against UAE. This is his 25th ODI but only his second against a Test-playing nation. The only other one was also against Bangladesh.

Hassan starts very fast. He appeals like crazy against Tamim Iqbal. All the newsrooms in the world use the image of him appealing. Hands out, mouth wide open, a scream at the umpire. Hassan might be appealing, but he is also screaming that Afghanistan are in the World Cup.

The appeal is amazing, and in vain.

Afsar Zazai was in the nets the day before, standing up and taking edges like a pro. His hands are quick, and soft. His footwork looks so sharp. He outshines many Test keepers. Peter Anderson, an assistant coach, asks to give him some full ones outside off. “No, full down leg”. He gloves them all perfectly.

The next day he is in mid-air. Diving. Flying. For a nick. The ball drops on him and he plucks it with his left hand. All cricket fans in the world swoon. But while he is still flying the ball starts to come out, he clutches at his with his right hand. He keeps it in.

According to Sid Monga, “Afsar’s family live in a small house with a temporary roof that can’t offer proper protection from the snow.” His hands are his family’s chance. His hands are magnificent.

Afghanistan have their first wicket in a World Cup, caught Afsar Zazai, bowled Mirwais Ashraf.

In 2009 Afghanistan lost a match in ICC World Cricket League Division Three. There were few in the ground. The games weren’t telecast around the world. The cricket world largely ignored it. But Hassan came off the ground crying. Documentary maker Leslie Knott, part of the team behind Out of the Ashes asked him why. “I have seen people die and I have not shed a tear. But there is something about cricket that gets me here [pointing to his heart]. Cricket is our chance.”

A chance cricket didn’t want to give them. This might be their last World Cup. Cricket has told Afghanistan it doesn’t want it. The ICC originally wanted a ten-team tournament. They have already announced the next two tournaments are for ten teams. The Test-playing nations don’t care about the associates. They pay lip service, but the proof is in the contraction. Under the old ICC rules, Afghanistan couldn’t be a Test playing nation, as they aren’t even a Commonwealth country. They are not one of the special private club.

The members don’t want them in “their” World Cup.

They clearly aren’t here. They couldn’t say that if they were at the ground. They couldn’t say it as the fans join in for chants. As they proudly wave their colours. As they line up to have their faces painted. As they cry with joy. As the slam their drums, jump on seats and scream in delight with every meaningless act.

They couldn’t say that as Shapoor Zadran runs in.

Shapoor is glorious, even in the nets. His run-up is almost double the length of his fellow bowlers’. His run-up is beautiful, his hair is beautiful, his action is beautiful, his follow-through is beautiful, his appeals are beautiful. Beautiful.

At one stage Shapoor bowls a quick short ball outside leg stump. The batsman misses it outside offstump. The keeper takes it in front of first slip’s throat. Any cricket official who tries to limit associate cricket should have to face Shapoor on a bouncy wicket first.

When Afghanistan struggle, they throw him the ball. He bowls fast around the wicket. It is Imran. It is Wasim. It is Shoaib. It is Shapoor.

The crowd chant. Shapoor, Shapoor, Shapoor.

Two quick wickets fall to him. It is quick, it is skillful, it is fast bowling and it is Afghanistan cricket.

Shapoor has been around a long time. When Afghanistan played their first international against Oman 11 years ago, Shapoor was there. So were Asghar Stanikzai, Mohammad Nabi and Nawroz Mangal. Their first recorded match as a side was 14 years ago when they played Nowshehra in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Grade II, Pool B, Group I. Nawroz Mangal played in that too. Against Oman he made 101.

Nawroz has been a source of pride for 14 years. Before most of his countrymen knew what cricket was. He looks far older and wiser than the 30 years his profile says he is. He has been a captain, a leader, and a rock of Afghanistan cricket. Today when he bats it is 3 for 3. He has been involved in more collapses than any batsman should ever be a part of. Today he tries hard, and stops the flow of wickets, but his 27 isn’t enough.

Andy Moles is trying to produce more players with the sensible nature of Nawroz. He talks of education, and he runs his net sessions like a schoolteacher. He puts the shoes out for the bowlers to aim at with yorkers. He organises who will be in what net. When a bowler oversteps, he forces them to recheck their run up. He shouts things like “last 15 minutes” and “you better go in now if you want a bat”. And all the coaches repeat the “keep your head down” mantras as often as they can.

This is a different Afghanistan than the one we’ve seen before; in the nets and in the middle, they have a new discipline. There are very few crazy slogs or loose balls. They play to plans and try to use their natural skills while curbing their natural enthusiasm. Moles is trying to Steve Waugh the whole side. Cut off the edges, make them harder and make them better.

Greg Buckle wrote in the Daily Telegraph about how Moles was teaching the team cross-seam bowling at training just before this match. He is a cricket educator. Just a few months ago Moles told ESPNcricinfo, “Sometimes you hear a boom go off somewhere when coaching in the middle. You see Black Hawk helicopters flying over the ground, going on missions and coming back. Like coaching in a war movie.”

They have come along way from the Taj Malik days.

Taj Malik was Afghanistan’s first coach. Taj is the embodiment of every club-cricket hero in the world. There is nothing Taj wouldn’t do for Afghanistan cricket. He played coached, administered, smoked and bled for his team. And it was his team. Without Taj’s passion and inspiration, Afghanistan might not be here. He will teach kids on the street, or coach the national side. Taj is the man who walked back home from Pakistan to give his country cricket.

Taj once declared he would throw himself in the Atlantic if Afghanistan didn’t win a lowly ICC tournament. When Afghanistan cricket grew, it outgrew him, but he planted it.

A braggart, and a dreamer. He is Afghan cricket. He is cricket.

Taj is not at the ground, he is back home. But this is his day, as much as it is Afghanistan’s and cricket’s.

On the field their biggest hero Hassan is coming back on for this third spell. His pace has gone. Earlier in the day he was quick, then he tried to field a ball by sliding feet first at it. He missed it. And looked silly. Now his proper quick bowling is more fast-medium than fast. After seven overs he has taken no wickets, and conceded 41 runs.

Bangladesh have a massive partnership, their batting stars are just about to take the game away from Afghanistan. The first ball of Hassan’s eighth over is a horrible full-toss, the next ball is a poor short ball, he looks slow and tired as Shakib Al Hasan picks up ten easy runs. The third ball he finds a dot-ball with a yorker.

The fourth, with Shakib on fire, he bowls a clever slower ball.

After he finishes the ball his big frame turns slowly around and walks back to the mark. His team-mates come in to celebrate his first World Cup wicket. By the next over he has taken another, this time he pumps his fists and has that Rocky spirit in his eyes.

His pace is gone, his body is failing, he is off eight paces, and he is still fighting. The crowd scream Hassan, Hassan, Hassan.

Samiullah Shenwari bowls seven balls, for two runs. Then is taken off. He is a legspinner who has been told three times he is running on the pitch. Afghanistan have overcome war, poverty and devastation, but even they can’t beat the laws of cricket.

In the press conference Andy Moles says he never noticed Shenwari had a problem with running on the pitch. He was probably too busy making sure there were enough balls and the right people were in the right nets.

Shenwari has little follow-through, and even less reason to be on the pitch, but he’s taken off and Afghanistan lose a bowler. A good bowler. One who averages 30 with the ball and goes for less than five an over. With the bat Shenwari looks good. Of all the Afghanistan top order he is the most composed, scores the easiest and moves towards a comfortable half-century.

But he goes for a second, when there is not quite a second there. Brilliant fielding from Sabbir Rahman fires the ball back to the keeper and Shenwari dives. He lands in the turf. His face is down. He doesn’t get up. The replays are looked at by the third umpire. Shenwari’s body language is even more conclusive. He is out. He has run on the pitch, and then been run out. Shenwari’s run is over.

Shenwari leaves Mohammad Nabi at the crease, and little else.

Afghanistan need practically ten an over, but the crowd is cheering for Nabi. Nabi, Nabi, Nabi.

From the book Second XI, Tim Wigmore recounts this tale. “In May 2013, Nabi’s father, a wealthy car salesman, was abducted from his car in the city of Jalalabad. For more than two months, his father’s whereabouts were unknown, despite a concerted effort by the government to find him.”

Nabi’s father was found just before he had to play World Cup qualifying matches against Namibia in Windhoek. With his father only safe for a few weeks Nabi smashed 81* off 45 balls. Then he took 5 for 12. Namibia only managed 18 more runs than Nabi made.

Today Nabi makes them chant his name. When they have no hope, he scores at better than a run a ball, he hits boundaries, his fans say Nabi, Nabi, Nabi. His final shot is one of a man who knows he can’t get them home.

Nabi leaves the ground with a defeated shrug.

Before the game young kids hold a flag in the shadows of the former MCG scoreboard. Their job is to take it out onto the ground. A simple gesture that has been done many times in this World Cup.

The Afghan crowd scream as their flag is taken onto the ground.

A man wearing an Afghanistan shirt, with his face painted in his country’s colours, is quiet. Around him are flags and his colours. There is another man painted from his waist to his hair in Afghan colours. Others are in replica shirts, branded World Cup shirts, homemade Afghanistan flag shirts and traditional Afghan clothing. It is a typical cricket scene. But as that flag moves from under the old MCG scoreboard out onto the ground, the quiet man eyes start to well up.

He’s crying. He’s smiling.

This is just a flag ceremony. Just a cricket game. Just an ODI. Just a World Cup game. It’s also the first time he has seen his Afghanistan walk out in a World Cup.

Shapoor, Shapoor, Shapoor. Hassan, Hassan, Hassan. Nabi, Nabi, Nabi.

Afghanistan lose. Their fans leave the ground with the same face losing fans from all over the world have. That look of emptiness once the hope has gone. A few hug each other. One shouts, “Well done. Afghanistan” at no one in particular.

Then a song starts. It is Joy Bangla. A song of hope and of a new beginning about Bangladesh coming out of war and into brighter days. The Bangladeshis sing along as their players do a victory lap. A few Afghanistan fans dance along as they leave the ground.

It’s not their song. It’s not their win. It will forever be their day. Afghanistan, Zindabad.