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Afghanistan need a huge win over South Africa on Friday to have a chance of qualifying for the Cricket World Cup semifinals. But to even be in the running at this stage is remarkable.
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Before this tournament, Afghanistan’s only 50-over World Cup win came against Scotland in 2015.
But in India they have beaten former champions England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, as well as thrashing the Netherlands, and came agonisingly close to downing the five-time winners Australia on Tuesday – thwarted only by Glenn Maxwell’s astonishing 201, which some are hailing as the “greatest knock” in one-day international history.
In an exclusive interview this week, captain Hashmatullah Shahidi told Al Jazeera about how Afghanistan have found the self-belief to humble some of the world’s biggest sides, and took issue with the use of the word “upset” being used for their victories.
“I still don’t believe that we have caused any upsets,” he said.
“An upset is something when you win off the last ball, or something like that. As a team, we are good enough to beat any opposition; we have the same calibre and are at the same level as the other teams. If they take us lightly, they will surely taste defeat.”
Afghanistan’s wins have given people rare opportunities for public celebration in the war-torn, Taliban-controlled country.
The team has an uneasy relationship with the government; it still plays under the green, black and red national flag banned by the Taliban, and is based abroad, but Shahidi says the Taliban supports the team.
But politics have hung over their campaign, especially in the game against Australia, whose cricket body has cancelled bilateral fixtures between the men’s sides over the Taliban government’s policies on women.
The Taliban have banned women from playing sport, ending a nascent drive to develop women’s cricket in the country.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) says they are trying to chart a path between advancing Afghan women’s cricket without penalising the men’s team. But there are still no clear targets or timelines in place to reinstate a women’s cricket programme.
Meanwhile, Umar Gul, a retired Pakistan fast bowler and former Afghanistan bowling coach, says the ICC also must invest in domestic Afghan men’s cricket to build on the team’s success and ensure it doesn’t just fizzle out.
“They don’t have that many facilities back at home,” Gul told Al Jazeera this week.
“They don’t have a proper domestic structure. Recently they just started the first-class season but they only have four teams. They need to correct their domestic structure and increase the teams so that they have the potential to improve at international level.”
Afghanistan’s coach, former England batter Jonathan Trott, told Al Jazeera that he did not want to comment on the politics around the sport but said “it’s our job to be good ambassadors for the game and for the country”.
“And our players certainly bring a lot of smiles to a lot of people in Afghanistan and around the world and, here in India, the support for Afghanistan has been amazing.”
Elsewhere this week:
- Field of dreams: How an Indigenous softball team captured Mexico’s heart
- In Myanmar’s relatively peaceful Ayeyarwady, Lethwei makes a violent return
- ‘I expected better’: Why are there so many empty seats at India’s Cricket World Cup?
- Who can qualify for the last Cricket World Cup semifinal spot and how?