Barring Bangladeshis, it is doubtful whether there was anybody else not rooting for Afghanistan when the two teams met in the World Cup on Wednesday. In the commentary box I was sharing with Aakash Chopra, Sanjay Manjrekar and Shoaib Akhtar, among others, there was certainly no ambivalence: How wonderful if the Afghans could pull off a surprise.
Pre-match expert opinion had given Afghanistan a fair chance in the game. In the past year or so, the team has had some tight matches against major teams. In fact when they last played Bangladesh, Afghanistan had won by 32 runs.
There was no fairy tale start to their sojourn in the big league, however. In fact, the match was rather one-sided. Bangladesh won by a hefty margin of 105 runs. Going by how the match transpired, it appeared that the Afghanistan players allowed stage fright from the big occasion to stymie their natural flair and aggression.
This was more pronounced in the batting than in the bowling. I thought in restricting Bangladesh to 267 instead of 300-plus which looked a distinct possibility when Sakib-al-Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahman were in partnership, the Afghan bowlers had done very well. The discipline shown in the 'death' overs was admirable.
But the Afghanistan batting failed. Three wickets in the first three overs crippled their prospects of making the run chase rewarding. The batsmen who followed were burdened with the task of preventing a total collapse and became ultra-defensive.
"That a nation ravaged by war could pick up the pieces, form a team and qualify for the biggest tournament in the sport within 20 years bespeaks extraordinary determination and ambition."
By the time there had been some kind of recovery, too many overs had passed, necessitating big risks that precipitated the lower order collapse.
There were brief spells of play when it seemed they might pull out that something extra to cause an upset. In the end, however, Bangladesh's greater experience prevailed.
But I do not see that affecting the support for Afghanistan going ahead. If anything, I see it increasing further. The cause for their universal appeal lies in an astonishing--and easily the most romantic--story in cricket, perhaps in the history of any sport anywhere.
That a nation ravaged by war could pick up the pieces, form a team and qualify for the biggest tournament in the sport within 20 years bespeaks extraordinary determination and ambition. Indeed, cricket, with all its niceties, highly nuanced technique, tradition and etiquette, seemed an unlikely sport to interest the hardy people of Afghanistan.
Football is still the biggest and most popular game in the country, followed by contact sports like wrestling and boxing and the medieval pursuit of buzkashi. Cricket looked a no-hoper though it has existed in the country at least since 1839.
But this was more in the form of tokenism than serious interest. It is in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s that the game began to be taken more seriously, and that too through refugees who had found shelter in Pakistan.
There were settlements of Afghan refugees across Pakistan, and since returning home did not materialize for more than two decades, a few generations got acquainted with the sport on a more regular basis, many of them going on to play in league and other tournaments.
By 1995, the Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed and when the refugees started returning home, they took back the gospel of cricket with them. But forging an identity as a cricketing nation was strewn with mighty obstacles.
Post 9/11, Afghanistan was in tatters again after being bombed by Americans and other western countries looking to finish off Osama bin Laden. Playing any sport at this time was difficult, but the challenge for cricketers was perhaps even greater as the Taliban issued a diktat against it. It took a great deal of explaining and cajoling for the Taliban to relent.
Once that happened, the progress since has been swift and extraordinary. In less than two decades, an Afghanistan team is remarkably playing at the highest level in the game. This has not come through compassion, but by competing with other associate members for the honour of playing in the World Cup.
"But the hardy Afghans took the hardship and challenges in their stride to script a most amazing story, full of pathos and valour. The player base is small. "
Even four or five years back, their prospects of qualifying seemed remote. Other associate member countries like Kenya, Canada and Netherlands had either greater legacy, past experience of being in the World Cup, or both.
But the hardy Afghans took the hardship and challenges in their stride to script a most amazing story, full of pathos and valour. The player base is small. Cricket is still played in and around Kabul. Infrastructure is rudimentary and opportunities to play the big teams are rare.
For instance, Afghanistan has not played a single ODI yet against India or Australia. Unless they rub shoulders and compete against the best, progress to the next level is not going to be easy.
But Shoaib Akhtar, who has spent a lot of time with players from Peshawar (who are from the same stock as the Afghans), believes that the exposure in the World Cup will trigger off a craze in Afghanistan and some high-quality players will soon emerge.
"Guys from this region are tough and want to win," Shoaib says. "They will not relent till they succeed. If not this time, be prepared for them four years from now."
In that threat also lies the possibility of an epic tale--and the enrichment of a sport struggling to go truly global.