Afghanistan did not stage an upset when they defeated Australia because they deserved every bit of success that comes their way but it was more than a mere victory on the cricket field, writes Sarah Waris. 

Afghanistan did not stage an upset when they defeated Australia because they deserved every bit of success that comes their way. But it was more than a mere victory on the cricket field.

If you were not among the few who were awake to watch Afghanistan thrash Australia for the first time ever, let me break down the final moments for you. Australia were in a spot of bother but Afghanistan had been here against the same opposition seven months ago. A familiar villain stood between them and history, with Glenn Maxwell’s patient fifty bringing back the heartbreaking memories of November 7 once more. Arguably the best knock in ODI history, Maxwell’s 201* shattered the Afghanistan team. The stage seemed set for an ugly deja vu in St Vincent.

It was the fourth ball of the 15th over when Gulbadin Naib executed a perfect redemption story. Back in 2019, Naib, who was leading Afghanistan in the ODI World Cup, gave away 18 runs in the 46th over against Pakistan, which shifted the momentum against his side in a close game. Not a regular bowler, his adamance in sending down the crucial overs despite being expensive was called out.

Against Australia, Naib, who had bowled just three overs in T20Is this year before the game, was the difference between the two sides but it was his celebration, the flexing of his bulging muscles that threatened to pop out through his skin-tight tee after every wicket and catch taken, which symbolised Afghanistan cricket in a nutshell.

Joined with Ireland as the last teams to gain Full Member status, Afghanistan have often battled to break free from the bubble of naivety associated with them. They are neither here nor there; not consistent enough to be considered strong contenders but not as inconsistent to be regarded as challengers merely filling up a spot in the competition. They continue to fight off alienation as Australia and England refuse to engage in bilateral ties with them. Instead, their resilience should unite the cricketing world, starring despite limited domestic games and no home venues, sending back joy to a militarized country. A team waiting to flap open their wings; a side with obstacles galore.

Just at the stroke of midnight, exactly a minute before the start of a new day in the West Indies, Afghanistan wrote a glorious chapter in their history as Mohammad Nabi latched onto a flat shot at long-on to send back the last Australian batter Adam Zampa.

A voiceover by Ian Smith like only Ian Smith could do: “So much history with Nabi and Afghanistan cricket.” Viewers were reminded of the growth of the team from oblivion in a short span, urging them to appreciate the warhorses, who until recently, had to wade through plenty of in-fighting, political differences and limited facilities to bring Afghanistan on the world map.

Nabi has played all but nine T20Is that Afghanistan have taken part in, defeating 46 countries in a journey that began with playing in the Associates Cup just 14 years ago. Even as the younger legs gathered around an equally thrilled Dwayne Bravo, their bowling coach, Nabi remained mysteriously unfazed, walking up to his teammates bereft of any expression whatsoever; possibly numbed by what had transpired, unable to grasp his contributions that led to the day.

Far away, head coach Jonathan Trott, having been credited with sparking a turnaround in Afghanistan cricket ever since he joined the team in 2022, was conspicuously absent in the victory celebrations, letting the other members of the staff partake in them instead. Regarded as an anchor amid a group of hyper-excited and emotional players, Trott usually allows his players to bask in their glories, something he regrets not doing in his playing days with England, but is also quick to check them if he sees the celebrations extending unnecessarily.

With little turnaround ahead of Afghanistan’s next game against Bangladesh, Trott, who was animatedly jotting down pointers in his notebook as victory neared, walked into the dressing room as the final wicket fell, almost indifferent to the result he would have worked so hard for. “Jonathan Trott goes inside and he will be silently celebrating,” exclaimed Smith as the in-ground photographers almost outnumbered the joyous Afghans, scampered to take images of the revelry.

It was also a power move. Yes, Afghanistan won. Yes, they have defeated five Test teams in the last two ICC events. Yes, it is a fabulous achievement, but Trott is here to normalise moments like these, showing that Afghanistan are on equal footing and defeats are no longer upsets but well-earned by a worthier side.

In the post-match press conference, skipper Rashid Khan lamented Australia’s refusal to play against them in bilaterals, elaborating on how cricket remains the biggest reason for happiness in their war-ravaged home, pointing out the duality in their treatment towards his side. Maybe the win will get them more respect, he would have thought. Maybe it would have been different if Afghanistan were a “big team”, he came close to saying. Maybe teams will realise that “cricket is not the solution of politics", is what he eventually said.

Considered the babies of world cricket, Afghanistan are finally standing up for what matters to them. They have been able to do so after reaching an equal footing, beating teams consistently and improving in all facets, moving away from being just a spin-heavy team known because of Rashid, to a well-developed side with several promising names. By staying true to their beliefs, Afghanistan have managed to strike a chord in no time. While on one level, the win against Australia in favourable conditions was almost expected of them. On another though, it might just have changed world cricket.