Drysdale’s Column: Afghanistan Visit Scotland Next Week

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Sometimes revolutions happen so quickly they leave the world gasping for air and witnesses spluttering: “What just happened?”

In other instances, there are transformations which occur so surreptitiously that their impact tends to be diminished or downplayed.

That certainly applies to the redoubtable souls who have been at the forefront of the astonishing success story which is Afghanistan cricket. Less than a decade ago, they were so far down the pecking order they would have been easy pickings for the ravenous shark in “Jaws”.

Yet now, as  they prepare to tackle Scotland in Edinburgh on Monday and Wednesday next week, Asghar Stanikzai’s side are on the cusp of earning the chance to graduate from the Associate ranks to the second tier of a new Test structure in the next three years.

In anybody’s terms, it has been a stratospheric rise from the situation less than a decade ago, where they  were performing in Division 5 of the World Cricket League.

At that stage, the Scots were the ICC’s Associate darlings and seemed to be ready to advance to a higher level. But, whereas they have stalled and stagnated, the Afghan players have pushed themselves into the global limelight with a joyous elan.

They beat the eventual champions, West Indies, at this year’s World T20 event and their victory was no fluke. They came close to triumphing over England as well and their combative, fiercely competitive squad were abrim with ambition.
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And, bolstered by the influence and experience of talismanic Pakistan star, Inzamam Ul-Haq, they prepared for the tournament by trouncing Zimbabwe in T20s and ODIs on a regular basis.

At the moment, there have even been calls for the sport to be included on the school curriculum and there’s no doubt that their advance, from amidst the wreckage of a war-ravaged country, is one of the most heartwarming developments of recent years.

Scotland, of course, won’t be indulging in sentiment during the ODI series next week, nor should they. Instead, they should be spurred on by the memory of recent defeats to their Associate foes on the global stage in 2015 and 2016.

And yet, if you believe in the importance of momentum in any game, the words of Inzamam still reverberate.

I met this cricketing legend in Glasgow in 2006 and he was effusive about the improvements which had been made by the Scots, whether in taking on and beating the English counties, or in securing Intercontinental Cup wins.

He genuinely viewed the latter competition as something which mattered in the ICC firmament. “It could be a great way to get the emerging countries up to speed against the big teams,” said the former Pakistan skipper.

But ever since, there has been a mixture of apathy and antipathy from many in Scotland to the event, not least from yours truly. My criticism was based on the fact there didn’t seem to be any point to the I-Cup before the ICC started talking about two-tier structures.

Now, though, everything has changed. And the Afghanistan team are on the crest of a wave, as they surge into Edinburgh, buoyed by significant extra investment from the ICC.

Not to mention Inzy himself, who has departed the role as coach, but has no doubt about the potential of Stanikzai and his peers.

“As soon as I became coach, we had a very busy run of fixtures, so I focused on the things I thought could help bring short-term success,” he said. “I didn’t attempt to fix their techniques – you can’t do that overnight.

“But I tried to change their approach to the game. For example, their satisfaction levels were low. They were content to score 30-35 runs and then get out, feeling they had done enough.

“I told them it was criminal to get out once they were set, had their eye in, and had begun to understand the pitch and the conditions.”

These words could apply equally to many in the Scottish ranks, players with undoubted talent, who nevertheless average in the low 20s, and who have struggled to convert promising starts into the type of knocks such as Kyle Coetzer’s magnificent 156 at last year’s World Cup or Richie Berrington’s T20 century against Bangladesh.

Can they do it? Can they step up? Yes and yes. But they have to prove it next week, not with words but actions, or they risk watching Afghanistan disappear further into the horizon.

Because there isn’t any way cricket is getting added to the curriculum in Scottish schools, not if any of us live as long as Methuselah!

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