Afghanistan, Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Division 4 Winners, Tanzania, 2008

Afghanistan’s and Hong Kong’s promotion to the Pepsi ICC World Cricket League Division 3, as a result of being first and second in Division 4, has immeasurably boosted their credibility as potential World Cup 2011 participants.

They are potentially just ten more World Cricket League (WCL) wins from playing in the next World Cup. Afghanistan and Hong Kong have proved their recent successes (WCL Division 5 and ACC Trophy Elite champions respectively) were not just one-offs. Development has been sustained.

Afghanistan’s WCL Division 5 win, while creditable, was flawed. Singapore beat Afghanistan by 69 runs in the group stage and may well themselves have gone on the Division 5 Final were it not for rain-affected matches in Jersey. In the Final itself, Afghanistan won by just two wickets chasing 80.

Up against Hong Kong in the semi-final of the ACC Trophy Elite, they were out-fought and out-thought. “Afghanistan were just not able to manage their talent back then,” says ACC Development Officer for Afghanistan Iqbal Sikander. “Everybody knows they have the necessary skill and passion.” Problem was they didn’t have much else.

The fear among some senior players after their semi-final loss to Hong Kong in the ACC Trophy Elite, and the dashing of their dreams of an Asia Cup appearance, was that the team would break up, dissatisfied as they were with the way they were being guided. The emphasis had been on boundaries. And boundaries. And boundaries. But big hits only get you so far.

It is no secret that Afghanistan have a new coach, appointed on the specific request of the players, former Pakistan international Kabir Khan. It is now readily apparent how much is new about the team. What Kabir has injected are discipline, fitness and a winning attitude. “He has told us to value our wickets and play the full 50 overs,” says Man of the Match in the WCL Division 4 Final Raees Ahmadzai, “to really take control of the game in the last 15 overs. He has said singles are very important. We have all changed our way of batting.”

“I hadn’t seen Hong Kong play before”, says Kabir Khan, “but I knew that whenever Afghanistan played them they lost. This time we went into the games knowing what they do and knowing how to react.” Afghanistan beat Hong Kong twice in WCL Division 4.

It was semi-finalists Afghanistan who hit the most boundaries in the ACC Trophy Elite. In WCL Division 4 it was Hong Kong who out-hit Afghanistan, 118 boundaries to Afghanistan’s 99. The difference is that Afghanistan are aiming to bat out their overs and giving the fielding side less chance to dismiss them. Plus, their bowlers and fielders are doing an exceptional job. Run-outs and catches going to hand have been a feature of their performance in Tanzania. The bowlers, of whom MCC alumni Hamid Hassan and Mohammad Nabi have been the pick, did brilliantly, nowhere more so than against Tanzania when, with the home team needing just 29 runs to win off the last 15 overs with five wickets in hand, Afghanistan bowled them out to win by 8 runs.

Kabir Khan

“This was all mental. The team have learnt not just to respect themselves and behave like international crickets on and off the field but also to realise that when they’re up against a higher-level of competition, even playing against first-class cricketers, they can’t play like they did in the past. They have to respect their ability and that of the opposition,” says Kabir Khan.

Hong Kong have improved dramatically since crashing out of 2007 WCL Division 3. They too appointed a new coach, former England international Aftab Habib and he’s honed a street-fighting unit who impressed in patches during the STAR Cricket Asia Cup, and who then went on to win Hong’s first ever international event the ACC Trophy Elite, knocking UAE off its long-held perch. “Even before the team left for Africa, Aftab was thinking about how to prepare for Argentina in January,” says Hong Kong Cricket Association General Manager Charles Lau. Add one more pace-bowler to support Irfan Ahmed and Hong Kong, a side packed with all-rounders, will not only be a great combination of youth and guile but have a more combative attack.

Hong Kong’s cricketers return the support of their coach Aftab Habib

The sides in WCL Division 4 were good. The ones in WCL Division 3 will be better. But it is Afghanistan and Hong Kong who have the momentum and self-belief now and even the teams in WCL Division 1, to be played in April 2009, are taking notice.

Related: Afghanistan and Hong Kong Aim For World Cup
Afghanistan Profile
Hong Kong Profile

Filed October 13, 2008