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If there were an India-Bangladesh match and a Pakistan-Afghanistan game going on parallelly, you would generally expect the India game to garner a lot more interest and more viewership. However, that was not the case on Friday (21st September 2018). Over 1.2 million were watching the Pakistan-Afghanistan encounter live on Hotstar and millions on television.

What does this mean? It definitely shows the improvement of Afghanistan Cricket and the competitiveness they brought to the table. It showed the exciting brand of cricket the Afghans played. It showed that they are capable of running top teams close and also beating them.

That night social media was on fire, going mad over Afghanistan’s performance and how they were running Pakistan (the Champions Trophy 2017 winners) remarkably close. When Shoaib Malik struck the winning runs in the final over, the Afghans on the field and the ones were distraught. They were heart-broken and it took an age for them to leave the field. The Afghan fans in the stands at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi were shell-shocked. Millions watching it on television or streaming it live would’ve certainly felt for them.

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Twitter, Facebook and all other social media went berserk as they were pained to see Afghanistan falter at the end. That continued when they lost to Bangladesh on Sunday (23rd September 2018) by a mere 3 runs. They were behind the game for the most part of the chase but they were never out of it. They kept going and never gave up at any point and at the end, fell agonisingly short by 3 runs.

These two losses will definitely be hard on them and may not reflect how well they played. But these losses will go a long way in helping them get better and maybe the next time they are in a similar situation, they might come out with a positive result.

In 2001, Afghanistan became an affiliated member of the ICC (International Cricket Council). However, it was in February 2010 that Afghanistan played their first-ever T20 international. The same year they made headlines when they qualified for the World T20 and traveled to the Caribbean for the multi-nation event. Since then, they’ve never looked back. Year-by-year, they have added feathers to their ever-growing cap of achievements.

They’ve featured in three T20 World Cups, one 50-over World Cup, recently gained Test status (and played their maiden Test match) and are now a full member of the ICC. It’s been close to a decade since they played their first international game and they’ve taken giant strides.

If there is something that’s stood out in Afghanistan’s cricket in recent times, it has been the fight, the passion and the spirit they’ve shown. They way they’ve played in this Asia Cup has shown that they are no less and they are here to fight and will not be bogged down easily. In fact, it might come as a surprise but they were the most convincing team in the group stages. They won both their games comprehensively and were the best team of the group stage.

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And it’s just the manner in which they’ve played that has made the world fall in love with them. The cricketing world has been made to sit up and watch Afghanistan closely.

8 runs along with a wicket in the penultimate over of a game (in a run-chase) is a good return. However, Rashid Khan was absolutely livid with himself for giving away a six. He was kicking the turf, maybe abusing himself for not being able to control. And the way Aftab Alam sunk and wept after he gave away the boundary was another heart-breaking moment. In fact, both Shoaib Malik and Hasan Ali walked up to the pacer, trying to console him. The Pakistani players were jumping but they knew they had gotten out of jail.

Afghanistan had beaten Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and were agonisingly close to beating another full-member in an ODI. It was no different when they lost to Bangladesh. They failed to chase down 8 runs in the final over and the Afghanistan dressing room looked distraught again. They stared in disbelief while the Bangladesh players jumped around with joy.

There were a lot of tweets and posts of how Afghanistan could’ve fared better had they had some experience and how it would’ve helped. But one thing is for sure, with these close games, it will help the players get better. They might know how to handle the situation when it arises next time and what are the do’s and don’ts in such circumstances.

Who would have thought Afghanistan might produce the most exciting cricket in this Asia Cup? They have been involved thrillers, cliff-hangers and games that have gone right down to the wire. They pulled the cricketing world and told them, “come look at us”. The brand of cricket they’ve played augurs well and it only asks one question: why don’t they play the top nations enough?

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The scheduling (according to some reports) is such that they next play directly in February 2019. Won’t that be disheartening for the fans and the players? Yes, the likes of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman are stars and they play in T20 leagues around the world. But what about players like Rahmat Shah (Afghanistan’s top run-getter this year), Hashmatullah Shahidi (the man who has scored three 50s in a row in this Asia Cup), Mohammad Shahzad (the exciting wicket-keeper)? When do these players get more opportunities? This should be a wake-up call for the ICC and the scheduling needs to get better. Teams like Afghanistan need to play more and more.

The stories of Afghanistan’s initial struggle and the way they’ve fought their way to play international cricket has been a heart-touching and an inspiring one. But they’ve managed to put everything behind and play an exciting brand of cricket, winning hearts all over the world. If they would’ve held their nerves better, they might well be in the final today. But ifs and buts don’t work in sport.

Nonetheless, whatever is the result in their last Super Four game against India, they can go back with the heads high. They have been one of the better teams in this competition and have every reason to be proud of themselves.

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