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Afghanistan's players celebrate after winning their Super Eight match against Bangladesh, which secured them a place in the semi-finals of the Twenty20 World Cup. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Afghanistan defeated Bangladesh in a low-scoring thriller in the final Super Eight match of the ICC Twenty20 World Cup, securing a place among the elite in world cricket. Afghanistan’s progress in this tournament was hanging by a slender thread, but Rashid Khan’s men tamed the Tigers by eight runs to advance to the semi-finals, eliminating Australia in the process.

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Afghanistan have been the giant-killers in the last 10 months, defeating former world champions Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as well as defending champions England during the 50-over World Cup in India. They followed it up with another good display in this Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies and USA, defeating New Zealand, Australia, and Bangladesh to prove that their success is no fluke and that they are firmly on the path towards ascendancy.

Coming a long way from humble beginnings

One of the youngest Test-playing nations, Afghanistan today have grown into a formidable force. From humble beginnings of being employed in warehouses in Dubai and Sharjah, the Afghanistan players practised and played the sport they love as a pastime. A team made up of men who spent their time either as expatriates or in refugee camps, earned One-Day International (ODI) status in the same year after failing to qualify for the 2011 World Cup.

Despite losing their first match to Bangladesh by 105 runs in the 2015 ODI World Cup held in Australia and New Zealand, Afghanistan players today have the confidence, belief, and skills to restrict the Tigers, bundling them out for 105 after scoring 115 for five in 20 overs on Tuesday.

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Afghanistan captain Rashid Khan celebrates one of his four dismissals against Bangladesh. Image Credit: AFP

The road to success

Afghanistan played numerous matches against Pakistan, UAE and Scotland, with Sharjah Cricket Stadium serving as their home  and the Emirates Cricket Board also playing a big role in thowing open its facilities in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the Afghan players taking part in numerous leagues in UAE. They held intensive training camps and played numerous matches that proved invaluable to the larger scheme of things and the Afghanistan Premier League was held in UAE for several years. Afghanistan were playing in Division Three of the World Cricket League in 2009, and today they have become world-beaters in 15 years.

Barring India and South Africa, Afghanistan have defeated all the other Test-playing nations. They came close to beating India during the 2012 Twenty20 World Cup in Sri Lanka, where India won by 26 runs. Similarly, Afghanistan had Australia on the mat during last year’s World Cup in India, but a stunning double century by Glenn Maxwell stopped Afghanistan from achieving that feat, which they managed in their second match in Group 1 of the Super Eight in the Caribbean Islands on Saturday.

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“It’s a dream for us to be in the semi-finals. The way we started the tournament, the belief came when we beat New Zealand. It’s unbelievable. The only guy who put us in the semi-finals was Brian Lara, and we proved him right. When we met him at a welcome party, I told him we won’t let you down,” said skipper Rashid Khan, who was instrumental in the team getting a reasonable total with a cameo of 19. He then went on to claim four wickets, ensuring the pressure was always on the Bangladesh batters despite chasing a low target.

“We thought 130-135 was a good score, but we fell 15 runs short. We knew they would come hard at us and we knew that is what we could take advantage of. We didn’t need to do anything extra, just be clear in our plans. We wanted to make people back home happy, that was the discussion we had and everyone did a wonderful job.

“In T20s, if you get a good start, it helps in the middle overs. The new-ball bowlers have given great starts to us throughout the competition. It makes it easier for us to go harder at the batsmen. They have delivered and were very clear in their minds.”

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Afghan fans watch the Super Eight match against Bangladesh on a big screen at an intersection in Jalalabad on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

New milestones

After gaining Test status in 2017, Afghanistan briefly shifted their base to India, gaining exposure to longer formats of the game. However, it is the numerous franchise leagues, including the world’s richest Indian Premier League, that enabled the current crop of players to constantly evolve and instill belief in them. The money associated with these leagues gave the motivation for many aspiring youths to take the sport as a career towards improving their lifestyle, which in return has boosted the talent base for Afghanistan.

But as a team, they were disjointed and could not hunt their rivals like a pack of wolves. After former England batter Jonathan Trott took over as the coach, he provided that missing link to the team, and they found immediate success in the World Cup, winning three straight matches.

“We have worked so hard over the past few years and we were dreaming and working for this day. I’m lost for words,” Naveen Ul Haq told the official broadcasters after receiving the Player of the Match award for his four wickets.

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Afghanistan fans burst firecrackers in Khost to celebrate Afghanistan's win against Australia on Sunday. Image Credit: AFP

Pacers put the brakes on Bangladesh

The Afghanistan pacers played a big part in halting Bangladesh’s progress in the semi-finals. Had the Tigers reached the target in 12.1 overs, then both Afghanistan and Australia would have been out of the tournament.

The Lucknow Super Giants pacer claimed his first two wickets in his second over, dismissing current Bangladesh skipper Najmul Hossain Shanto and former captain Shakib Al Hassan, and claimed the last two off successive balls to trigger wild celebrations for Afghanistan fans across the world.

“We always knew that they were going hard in the powerplay to chase the total down in 12.1 overs, so we knew we were in the game as long as we kept picking wickets. We had confidence that these wickets are not high-scoring wickets. As long as we don’t give easy runs, we knew we would have a chance.”

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Afghanistan Naveenn-ul-Haq celebrates the dismissal of Taskin Ahmed during their Super Eight clash on Tuesday. Image Credit: AFP

Looking ahead

The pitches in the West Indies and USA have certainly helped teams like Afghanistan, USA, and Nepal, who didn’t have express pace bowlers but were smart to adapt to the conditions.

Afghanistan will meet South Africa in the semi-finals in Trinidad and Tobago, Lara’s home turf, on Thursday at 4:30am (UAE time) with the belief that they could reach the final. If there is one concern for the Afghanistan team, it is the batting. Barring the openers, none of the other batters are able to soak up the pressure and score runs.

Fielding, especially catching, is another area that has been letting the team down. Answering a question from Gulf News, Trott said his team had not been on the top of the fielding charts, but had been working hard to achieve success. These might be some blemishes that need to be addressed as they go on, but for now, it is time to savour their success.

“It’s a massive celebration back home. It’s a big achievement for us as well. We have done that at the Under-19 level too, but what we have achieved in this World Cup, I don’t have any words to describe the feeling back home. We have to go into the semis with a very clear mind and make sure we enjoy the occasion,” Rashid Khan signed off with a message in Pashto.