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No shortage of Afghan talent

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Number_one_Best_Greatest_cricketThe fact that Afghanistan’s triumph in the ACC Under-19 Asia Cup did not come as a surprise shows how much the war-torn nation’s cricket has blossomed in such a short time. It is phenomenal that the Afghans, who were battling the likes of Italy, Tanzania and Fiji as late as 2008-09, are today not just a full member of the ICC, but are also threatening to break into the top eight of international cricket’s pecking order. Never has cricket seen as meteoric a rise.

Keen followers of Under-19 cricket would very well know that Afghanistan’s success in the Asia Cup was only a matter of time. Moreover, the manner in which they won the title speaks volumes of the swathes of talent across the country, waiting to be tapped and nurtured. The tone was set in the first game itself, when 16-year-old off-spinner Mujeeb Zadran cut through the Pakistani batting. Pakistan were skittled out for 57, eventually going down by seven wickets.

A 61-run reversal against Sri Lanka was but a blip, as Afghanistan trounced the UAE in the last league match and Nepal in the semifinal to set up a final clash against Pakistan. The show-stealer against UAE, in what was a rain-reduced 20-over game, was Darwish Rasooli, who creamed an unbeaten 105 off just 38 balls. Mujeeb continued his amazing vein of form with a return of 6/28 against Nepal, setting up a breezy seven-wicket win.

As if two six-wicket hauls were not enough, Mujeeb collected a further 5 for 13 in the final, turning it into another mismatch. After wicketkeeper Ikram Faizi scored an excellent 107* from 118 balls to propel Afghanistan to 248/7, Mujeeb, with leg-spinner Qais Ahmed (3/18) for company, routed Pakistan for their second sub-100 total – 63 all out – to help his side deliver a 185-run thumping. Mujeeb’s 20 wickets in the tournament came at a stunning average of 5.55.

 

Mujeeb has played List A and Twenty20 matches for Speen Ghar Region back home, and a first-class debut now beckons. Less than two months back, he gave glimpses of his unquestionable talent by scalping 17 wickets at 5.76 in the five-match Under-19 ODI series in Bangladesh, including 7/19 in the fourth game, to bowl Afghanistan to a 3-1 victory. Mujeeb is among the scores of immensely gifted youngsters dotting the thriving domestic cricket scene in Afghanistan.

 

The first five rounds of the ongoing Ahmed Shah Abdali four-day tournament, Afghanistan’s six-team first-class competition, highlighted to the cricket world the achievements of 18-year-old batting prodigy Baheer Shah, who is another example of the productive breeding ground that Afghanistan has become. Baheer became only the 17th batsman to strike a double hundred – an unbeaten 256 – on his first-class debut: for Speen Ghar Region against Amo Region.

Baheer’s 256* is also the second highest score on first-class debut, behind only Amol Muzumdar’s 260 for Bombay against Haryana in the 1993-94 Ranji Trophy. In his third match, against Boost Region, Baheer scored 111 and 116, and this hunger for runs reached its peak – so far - in his fourth match, again against Boost Region. This time, he cracked an unbeaten 303 to further extend his astounding initiation into first-class cricket.

In the process, he became the second youngest batsman, after Pakistani great Javed Miandad, to score a triple hundred in first-class cricket. No other batsman in the history of first-class cricket has scored more runs in his first five matches than Baheer, who now boasts of a tally of 909 runs from eight innings, including four centuries, at a bewildering average of 181.80. He overhauled the record of Australian Bill Ponsford, who had 803 runs at 114.71 at the same juncture.

 

Even though playing international cricket at home is a far-fetched dream, Afghanistan have taken giant strides towards building a strong domestic base. Blessed with copious ability, buoyed by an enthusiastic fan base, and above all, hardened by the circumstances, the average Afghan cricketer possesses an indomitable spirit that, if channeled properly, can translate into acts of marvel on the field. When it comes to sheer passion, the Afghans can easily trump most other Test teams.

 

It is a strong possibility that Afghanistan, who were awarded Test status in June, will play their inaugural Test match against Zimbabwe at Sharjah early next year. Unless something drastic happens in the upcoming final round, Afghanistan will finish their last Intercontinental Cup as champions, and considering the manner in which they demolished current holders Ireland in March, it will be not in the least surprising if they conjure a victory in their maiden Test.

The extraordinary feats of Mujeeb and Baheer bear testimony of Afghanistan’s undeniable march towards becoming the next Asian powerhouse – and this is no exaggeration. Leg-spin sensation Rashid Khan, for one, has shown what the Afghans are capable of if given the opportunity. If a team can rise from the rubble, literally, to the top tier of international cricket merely within ten years, there is no reason why it cannot go on to be a world-beater in the next ten.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket blogger and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of Test...

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