New ‘Legends’ Cricket Tournament Will Bring Back Classic Bowling Format

LONDON: It’s a fool’s game to try to predict which matches in a tournament will produce a shock result. If the prediction is wrong, we risk appearing stupid. If a shock or surprise outcome occurs, there is a retrospective analysis of why it was so surprising and unanticipated. This situation applied during the 2024 Men’s T20 World Cup.

My reaction when I woke up in England to the news of Afghanistan’s victory over Australia was shock. Why was I shocked and should that have been my first reaction? Maybe it was because I predicted Australia would win the tournament. Maybe it was because I underestimated Afghanistan.

The team had lost to India by 47 runs in their previous match, after being beaten by West Indies by 104 runs. Based on this, it was reasonable to assume that Australia had the upper hand, given that they were on an eight-match T20I winning streak, their longest winning streak in this format.

My two fellow Arab News podcasters had reported that one of the pitches in Kingstown, St. Vincent, had generated significant buzz and wondered how Australia would cope with Afghanistan’s high-quality spinners . Influenced by the pitch reports, Australia opted to select an additional spinner, who was economical but did not claim any wickets. Afghanistan’s batting has been inconsistent throughout the tournament, relying heavily on their openers, one of whom, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, is the tournament’s top scorer, the other, Ibrahim Zadran, not far behind.

The team also includes the leading wicket-taker of the tournament, Fazalhaq Farooqi, who played for MI Emirates in ILT20 2024. Add to this captain Rashid Khan, one of the best spin bowlers in the world with nearly of 150 T20I wickets, and the team has a strong backbone. Support for this has not always been consistent but, against Australia, it appeared in the form of Gulbadin Naib, whose average pacer took four wickets for just 20 runs, sparking a collapse of the Australian middle order .

During this period, Naib captured the wicket of Glenn Maxwell, who threatened to win the match for his team. The Afghan players’ minds must go back to November 7, 2023, when they reduced Australia to 91 for seven in the 18th over, chasing 292 to win. A victory could have propelled Afghanistan into the semi-finals of the ODI World Cup.

However, battling injuries, cramps, dehydration and exhaustion, Maxwell, literally on his own, secured victory for Australia, surviving several missed chances to score 201. The scars of that defeat will be profound for Afghanistan and the memories must have resurfaced as Maxwell was batting at a different level to his teammates. This time, the Afghan players kept their cool, a fine catch representing Maxwell, paving the way for a 21-point victory which they celebrated wildly.

Only one match, against Bangladesh, stood in the way of a place in the semi-finals. Even skeptics were forced to admit that victory in Afghanistan would not be a shock. In a tense, low-scoring, rain-interrupted encounter, the Afghan team held their nerve to triumph by five points, but not without controversy.

In the 12th over, when Bangladesh were two points short of the recalculated target score, the Afghan coach was seen on camera asking his players to slow down. Immediately, Naib, fielding a slip, fell to the ground, apparently suffering from cramps. He was treated and taken off the field, after which the rain returned. When play resumed, Naib then bowled the 15th over, taking a wicket which he celebrated by sprinting around the field.

The commentators were not impressed. Some felt that the “spirit of cricket” was being questioned. Others called on the International Cricket Council to sanction Naib for “wasting time” under its code of conduct. These include a match fee fine, suspension points and a five-point in-match penalty.

No action has been taken so far. The Afghan captain seemed upset by Naib’s behavior or, perhaps, the coach’s instructions. He is Jonathan Trott, a South African-born cricketer who played 127 times for England. In the semi-final, he had to plan the downfall of cricket in the country of his birth. This didn’t go well.

On a poor pitch, Afghanistan were dismissed for 56 in 11.5 overs, with South Africa winning by nine wickets. Until this game, Trott’s star players had performed at the peak of their abilities and the supporting cast had done so when necessary. Two of them, Naib and Mohammad Nabi were part of the team that joined Division 5 of the World Cricket League in June 2008. The team quickly moved up to Division 2, allowing them to participate in the 2009 qualifiers of the 2011 ODI World Cup. Although he did not make it, one-day international status was granted.

Since then, continued development has been rewarded with full membership of the ICC in 2019. One of the conditions to be met is that of having a funded women’s team with pathway structures in place, participation in at least one ICC Women’s World Cup in the previous four years, or being included in the ICC Ranking Table. This has not been achieved.

The women’s team was first established in 2010 and has only participated in one tournament. In 2020, the Afghanistan Cricket Board awarded 25 central contracts, but the team was disbanded following the Taliban takeover of the country in August 2021 and the subsequent ban on women’s sport. Many of the team’s players are said to be in Australia.

The Taliban’s different policy towards the men’s team is an acknowledgment that cricket is the country’s most popular sport, holding particular importance among Pashtun men. The team’s success provides legitimacy to the national regime. Other countries’ human rights concerns are pushed aside. So far, the ICC has adopted soft diplomacy. It can hardly change that now the team is even more successful. Had this not been so, these issues would not have received such high profile. Their progress is unpredictable.

Those who did not foresee the success of Afghanistan were ridiculed. As if further proof was needed, I checked a website that offered odds on which teams would reach the semifinals before the tournament. Remarkably, the favorites were India, South Africa, England and Afghanistan. If I had looked at this website, I would have eliminated any mention of shock and Afghanistan in the same sentence. Despite the semi-final defeat, the Afghan men’s team is now a force not to be underestimated in the future.

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