Two years ago, Afghanistan were playing in Division Five of the World Cricket League. Their meteoric rise up cricket's hierarchy, from humble beginnings in refugee camps, was capped yesterday by the meeting with the superstars of India. But the clash did not follow the David v Goliath script for Afghanstistan as they lost by seven wickets, although the rookies did earn the respects of their opponents.
"It is really important to win against teams like Afghanistan, UAE, Kenya and all because you are expected to win," said MS Dhoni, the India captain, at a post-match TV interview. "More often than not, you are under more pressure when you are playing these sides. "But I am really happy to see the kind of cricket Afghanistan play. I think they batted really well after losing three early wickets. Their middle-order batting was really good and they were not letting anything go when fielding and bowling. It is a really good sign to see them play the way they did."
India found a chink in the Afghan armour - their technique against short-pitched bowling - and ruthlessly exposed it. Apart from Noor Ali, who made an excellent half-century, they were found wanting. Five of their batsmen were dismissed by deliveries banged in short and Afghanistan's first-innings on the global stage finished on 115 for eight. Defending a modest total, the newcomers, however, made sure India did not canter to a win.
They bowled with good lines and lengths to get the wickets of Gautam Gambhir (four), Suresh Raina (18) and Murali Vijay (48), and fielded with gusto take the reply to the 15th over. While India eased to an expected win, it was an emotional moment for the Afghans even in defeat. Their technique may have been exposed, but they never looked overawed by the occasion. Having booked their place among the T20 elite at the qualifiers in Dubai earlier in the year, Afghanistan heard their national anthem being played for the first time at a cricket game and there were a couple of teary eyes at that pre-game ceremony. And for the first time, their families, friends and fans back home were watching the game live on television.
"This is the first match we are playing in front of the cameras," said Ali in a television interview. "We are also playing against a very good opposition. All the support was for India. So there was a lot of pressure on us and a big test playing in front of the camera." The bigger test for the Afghans, though, was the short-pitched deliveries they were peppered with. Karim Sadiq was the first to fall after an attempted pull landed in the hands of Dhoni. Mohammad Shahzad was next to go, though a touch unlucky. He trudged back disappointed after being judged caught behind, off another short ball that seemed to have come off the helmet. That dismissal brought Nowroz Mangal, the captain, to the crease, but he did not last long - chipping Ravindra Jadeja to mid-off. Three down for 29, the Afghans had got their campaign on the global stage off to a ragged start.
Ali, however, stood defiant and, finding good support from Asghar Stanikzai, carried the score to 97 before becoming Ashish Nehra's third victim, all succumbing to the short ball. Stanikzai (30) followed soon after, skying another ball but his 68-run partnership with Ali had ensured Afghanistan had a decent score on board. "It is a really big day for us," said Mangal in the television interview. "India are a very big side, No 1 in the world. Unfortunately we lost the toss and the ball was seaming in the morning. We would love to play India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan on a regular basis, learn from them and improve our cricket."
* Compiled by Ahmed Rizvi, with agencies