x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Afghanistan cricket supporters cross over to a new boundary

Fans throng into Sharjah Cricket Stadium with spirits even their colourful Pakistan brethren cannot match during the one-off one-day international.

Over 15,000 supporters arrived at Sharjah Cricket Stadium to watch Afghanistan take on Pakistan on Friday.
Over 15,000 supporters arrived at Sharjah Cricket Stadium to watch Afghanistan take on Pakistan on Friday.

Some came playing bagpipes. Others were wielding life-size posters of the president, Hamid Karzai. Everybody who was anybody was carrying an Afghan tricolour. Air-horns honked incessantly.

Cricket's new world order arrived noisily and en masse at Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Friday. Be aware: it looks nothing like the old one.

After three weeks spent watching cricket's ancient elite playing in whites in the oldest format, the game burst into colour when the world's most combustible cricket team met, er, Pakistan. It was never likely to be a quiet afternoon on the village green.

"In fact, this is nothing," Nasimullah Danish, the chief executive of the Afghanistan Cricket Board, said of the turnout of around 15,000 Afghan expatriates in Sharjah. "Back home in Afghanistan there is a holiday and millions of people are watching on TV. I have received over 100 SMSes and messages congratulating us."

It is not often that Pakistan's hyperactive and technicolour supporters are outshone. Compared to the Afghans, though, they were as meek as lambs last night.

In their defence, this encounter meant a good deal more to Afghanistan than it did their better-established rivals.

For Pakistan, it was mainly a chance to oil the cogs which are already moving nicely ahead of bigger tests in the one-day international series against England next week.

For the Afghans, it was everything. After 18 matches against less-luminous opposition, this was their first crack at one of the big boys.

In just turning up on Friday, they had become the first affiliate side to play a full Test nation in a one-day international.

The fact it was Pakistan meant it was even bigger than their appearance at the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean in 2010. After all, without Pakistan, there would be no cricket in Afghanistan. The ties are strong.

"This is an unbelievable and unforgettable opportunity for the Afghanistan cricket team," Danish said.

While Pakistan's players ultimately brought to bear the kind of experience that 50 years as a Test nation provides, those from Afghanistan hardly went quietly.

Their efforts may not have been enough to force victory, but they put together a blinding highlights reel.

Karim Sadiq, the fearless opener, made 40. He was disconsolate when he fell to a catch at the wicket off Shahid Afridi.

On his walk back to the pavilion, he gave a distracted wave of his glove to acknowledge the applause, then whacked his pad in frustration. They must be strong pads.

Mohammed Shahzad, the spiky wicketkeeper-batsman who scored twin 50s in a first-class game against England recently, was at it again.

He reverse-swept Saeed Ajmal, England's tormentor-in-chief, for a six that nearly ended up in the road. "I'm the sort of person who likes challenges," Shahzad had said. Clearly.

Mohammed Nabi, the side's premier all-rounder, had the chance to show his class before he was run out for 37.

No doubt Afridi would have approved of one of Nabi's muscle-bound sixes, had he not been bowling at the time.

Later, as another Afghan player essayed yet another reverse-sweep to the boundary, Misbah-ul-Haq let slip a wry grin.

It looked as though Pakistan's captain was thinking to himself: we can cope with them this time, but this lot could be trouble in the future.

Not long ago these same Afghan players were playing the likes of Jersey and Tanzania in the lowest echelons of cricket.

They have never been cowed by the next step.

"These guys seem to be supermen," Tim Anderson, the International Cricket Council's global development manager, said of Afghanistan's players and their upward cricket mobility.

"There will be people out there thinking, 'If they can do it, then so can we.' We are very proud of what they have been able to achieve."

The heaving crowd at the UAE's oldest cricket venue was another indicator of cricket's evolving international landscape.

The Test series between England and Pakistan went unnoticed by many, and unattended by all but a hardy few.

Yet this game was the hottest ticket in town, a sure sign that the appetite for the sport now stretches far beyond cricket's traditional boundaries.

"It is one of those occasions where you walk into the ground and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck," Anderson said.

"After three Test matches where there haven't been very big crowds, then to come over and watch Afghanistan play in front of a packed house in Sharjah, it says a lot about the potential out there beyond the full [Test nation] members."