The words of Sri Lanka captain Dasun Shanaka rang loud and clear ahead of Asia Cup 2022. The island nation was supposed to host the tournament but the sport hasn’t been the vortex of late for the country facing the worst economic crisis in its history. Cricket though has continued concurrently in the heat of it all.
When thousands took to the streets for protests condemning former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for mismanagement of the country’s finances, a few hundreds climbed the walls of the Galle Fort, just a few metres away from a Test match featuring players who wore their crest. The players, as Australia captain Steve Smith would later agree, could hear them ‘but it didn’t get to anyone or play a part in what was happening out here’. And so, the cricket continued. A month and a half later, just as Shanaka was addressing the media in Dubai ahead of the tournament, a delegation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is on their visit to Sri Lanka to continue discussions with the authorities on economic and financial reforms and policies. But cricket will continue. Almost as if it has to.
“Winning matches is the most thrilling thing for Sri Lankan people,” Shanaka added during the interaction.
Some 3,000 km away from home, Sri Lanka Cricket are still hosting the 15th edition of Asia’s continental cricket tournament. It’s barely the same and the skipper knows it.
“Had this tournament happened in Sri Lanka, it would have favored us as the ground support would have been good,” he said. “Playing in home conditions always has an advantage.”
Facing them in the Asia Cup opener will be a team whose example was cited by Hillary Clinton, former US Secretary of State in 2010.
“I might suggest that if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team,” Clinton said, standing alongside the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the White House. “For those of you who don’t follow cricket, which is most of the Americans, suffice it to say that Afghanistan did not even have a cricket team a decade ago. And last month, the team made it to the World Twenty20 championships featuring the best teams in the world.”
The echo of Clinton’s words has gone silent in 2022. The national men’s cricket team has indeed gone from playing world tournament qualifiers to being an automatic qualifier but the words at the crux of that white house gathering have barely stood the test of time.
“As we look toward a responsible, orderly transition in the international combat mission in Afghanistan, we will not abandon the Afghan people. Our civilian commitment will remain long into the future.”
In 2022, as Afghanistan men’s cricket team go into their first Asia Cup fixture, it has been just over one year since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. With women’s cricket and the national team being forced out by the regime, the men’s side is one of the few standing groups in the entertainment segment. Barely, however.
Dr Sarah Fane, known as ‘mother of Afghan cricket’ because her NGO “Afghan Connection”, founded in 2011, aimed to transform young lives through education and sport. The charity funded the building of 46 schools in rural Afghanistan for 75,000 kids and she received an OBE in 2013. They built cricket pitches in schools, held tournaments, provided clothing and kit and ran coaching camps.
She quit the country in 2020 after she started to get threats that they would have to start paying taxes to the Taliban, and she didn’t want to drag her donors into that situation.
A year before that, she had spoken to this newspaper about the effect of cricket in Afghanistan. “Eight million kids are in school, seven million more than (in) 2001. I haven’t faced any problems with parents sending boys to play cricket. With girls, yes; it’s a conservative society but hopefully things are changing. Kids play cricket everywhere in the country – streets, grounds, front of houses, everywhere. It’s a national obsession. Great source of joy for everyone. Afghanistan doesn’t have popstars or politicians to celebrate. Cricketers are the heroes.”
She recounted a “most emotional” tale from 2009 that still gives her goosebumps. The Afghanistan national team had come to a school for a camp, funded by MCC. “Jalalabad was flooded that day. Rickshaws looked like bizarre half-submerged fish as they battled through waters,” says Sarah. The kids didn’t know they would be there and I can still remember their faces. It was incredible, really. I am amazed that somehow in my life as a doctor I ended up with cricket and Afghanistan. I never even dreamt about it.”
But of late, that dream is drying up. “The passion for the game has increased but the flow of money has started to dry up,” Asadullah Khan, a former Afghanistan Cricket Board selector, had said in a recent interview to Cricinfo.“… corporate sponsorships for the game have come down. ICC funds are not coming directly, hence money is an issue. ACB is still surviving but [we’re] not sure how long it can be sustained.”
It is with all this happening that Mohammad Nabi will lead the team in UAE. And they may as well win the first one.
Not just on paper, Afghanistan stands even vs Sri Lanka on ground
It was in 2014 that Afghanistan made their first appearance in the Asia Cup, the same year when Sri Lanka won their last. Imagine telling either of those teams that in eight years time the two would be tough to pick from in the tournament’s opener. But this is where we are.
Since the last T20 World Cup, Afghanistan have won six of their 10 T20Is across three bilaterals, beating Zimbabwe and playing a stalemate against Bangladesh in the process. While it needs to be taken into account that Afghanistan more often compete against teams lower in ranking than Sri Lanka, the latter have won only one T20I series since 2020. That, came against a second string Indian side, which barely managed to put an XI on field after seven of their players tested positive for Covid-19 post a win in the first of the three matches. For what it’s worth, Afghanistan’s win-loss ratio since 2020 is 1.857 compared to Sri Lanka’s 0.416.
Powered by globetrotting T20 riches, the Afghan side in 2022 have multiple players to win them games in the format. Rashid Khan is still the big name in the squad, especially after the new update of no bones cricket shots he executes with the bat. But gone are the days when it was all about him. Mujeeb ur Rahman is an able partner under the spin column. Together, the duo have a total of 89 wickets in between them at economy serving less than 6.50. Spin, hasn’t even been the most successful outlet for the team with the pacers picking a wicket more (56) in all T20Is since 2021.
Their batting might be where the five-time Asian champions hurt Afghanistan. Openers Hazratullah Zazai and Rahmanullah Gurbaz have only scored two fifties in nine innings since the 2021 World Cup. There has been an increasing reliance on the team’s leading scorer from last year’s tournament, Najibullah Zadran, who has also been Afghanistan’s leading run getter in the format since. Rashid can be a biggie lower down the batting order but the opposition can kill the game if the top order collapses early.
— Rashid Khan (@rashidkhan_19) August 27, 2022
For Sri Lanka, spin is a keyword with the duo of Wanindu Hasaranga and Maheesh Theekshana filling eight off the 20 overs with quality. Just like their competitors, Sri Lanka do have serious batting issues that haven’t been addressed pre Asia Cup. Openers Pathum Nissanka and Charith Asalanka have a total of only three fifties between them since the last T20 World Cup. They are also the only two batters who have played all 11 matches succeeding the tournament last year in a batting order that has been highly inconsistent.
The team, undergoing a transition phase, would like to dig some of them good vibes from the last T20I they played, in their homeland, against Australia. When Dasun Shanaka blasted his side to a win, chasing 75 in the final five overs.
Not the favorites but…
Both Sri Lanka and Afghanistan start the Asia Cup not as favorites to feature in the final due two Sundays from now.
But among the many things ahead of the opener, 30-year-old Dasun Shanaka also said, “…in T20 cricket, there are no favorites. If we play good cricket, we can be the favorites.”
A statement of fact that bodes well for both the teams playing on Saturday. Away from the crises in their motherlands, facing less concerning cricket crises of their own. A win would barely change things for their loudest fans but cricket continues. For better or worse.