Afghanistan made their debut in international cricket at St Lucia yesterday, which was remarkable, as Dr Johnson said of seeing a dog walking on it hind legs, because you are surprised to find it done at all. Less than a decade ago Afghanistan did not have a cricket team. It had some cricketers but most of them were stuck in refugee camps in northern Pakistan, after their families had fled from the Russian invasion in 1979. When they came home they brought cricket with them, and they have proved remarkably quick learners
Robin Marlar, when he was President of MCC in 2005-06 took up their cause, becoming one of the Godfathers of Afghan cricket, and he detected early on qualities of innocence and physical ability, a lack of inhibition backed by fearlessness in Afghanistani cricketers. They needed all these qualities yesterday on a sunny morning at the Beausejour ground in St Lucia on the second day of the World T20 tournament, and they did not disgrace themselves.
India, the experienced masters of the T20 game, won by seven wickets, needing fewer than 15 overs to reach the target. But the performance needs to be seen in the context of the past two years. In 2008 Afghanistan were admitted to the fifth division of the leagues organised for ICC affiliated and associated members There is plenty of competition at this level, and they moved smoothly up the leagues, just failing to qualify for next year's World Cup, but beating Abu Dhabi to qualify for the T20 competition in the West Indies.
The story had begun in 2005 at the annual meeting of MCC when a member asked a bemused audience what steps the club was taking to support cricket in Afghanistan. Instead of dismissing this as a bizarre intervention, Marlar, an unreconstructed romantic of the old school, decided to take it seriously. He organised a match between MCC and Afghanistan in Mumbai in March 2006 during England's tour of the sub-continent. The result came as a shock. Afghanistan won by 179 runs, bowling Mike Gatting out for a duck and a young man called Mohammad Nabi whacked six sixes. MCC decided to take Afghan cricket seriously. Two players joined the MCC team of Young Cricketers. "Robin's passion and enthusiasm ignited it," says Matthew Fleming, the former Kent captain who now looks after the club's interests in Afghanistan.
Before yesterday's debut, Afghanistan's lowest score in T20 cricket was 121 against Ireland. That would have made a respectable target in the first game the team had ever played on TV. It was clear from the first over that they would find it difficult. The pitch had bounce and India's seamers were getting exaggerated swing. At the start the Afghan openers were playing forward to short deliveries and missing badly. Karin Sadiq succumbed in the second over, edging a delivery from Ashish Nehra to MS Dhoni behind the wicket. But Noor Ali began to connect when he swung and Afghanistan's first boundaries kept the score ticking over.
Unfortunately, Mohammad Shahzad – who had been their main man, scoring 214 not out when the team won a remarkable fourth innings run chase against Canada in February – only edged when he swung wildly at Nehra and gave Dhoni another catch. Gone for only four. Then the captain Norwoz Mangal, another heavy hitter, gave a soft catch to mid off; 29 for 3. This was the moment their supporters must have feared, the start of a middle order collapse that would end in ignominy. But that did not happen. Noor was joined by Asghar Stanikzai – No 9 in the batting order. They stayed together, then opened up. Noor hit two sixes that cleared long boundaries on a large ground with a slow outfield.
India's spinners seemed much easier to them than the seamers, and having batted cautiously for seven overs, the pair accelerated the scoring rate between overs 12 and 14. Noor brought up his own 50 with a six off Harbhajan Singh. At 97 for 3 in the 17th over, a score of more than 120 seemed like a good bet, except that that batting collapsed when Noor became the third man to be caught Dhoni bowled Nehra. Three wickets fell on 97 and the remaining batsmen were unable to rise to the occasion. No sixes for Nabi yesterday. Even so, 115 for 8 was no disgrace.
Afghanistan's bowlers looked fierce and bowled some good deliveries. They managed to remove Gautam Gambhir for four, but Murali Vijay, who scored 16 off the first over, set the pattern. Two more wickets fell, but India's batsmen were untroubled in reaching 116 in 14.5 overs. It is hard to see Afghanistan doing much better against South Africa next week, but they have arrived on the international scene and might prove capable of securing a permanent place on the edges of Test cricket.