T20 World Cup - Why the Afghan defeat of Australia was such a surprise

Whilst the 2024 T20 World Cup will be remembered for some surprise results—the USA beating Pakistan and Canada defeating Ireland, for example—arguably Australia’s loss to Afghanistan ranks alongside them.

Never before had Afghanistan beaten Australia in any format of the game, but to do it in a T20 World Cup Super 8 match made it even more special. 

The result had even more significance for Australia because it made their next match against India a must-win game. In the event they lost that, and with Afghanistan beating Bangladesh in turn, the Afghans made the semi-final.

Meanwhile, Australia headed home, knowing that its chance of becoming the first nation to hold all three ICC trophies simultaneously had passed. 

Whilst Afghanistan has had notable one-off wins before, their run in this tournament has come as a surprise to many and is the culmination of several factors.

World rankings

Before the tournament started, Australia was ranked second in the ICC T20I world rankings, eight places below Afghanistan. Australia is also the reigning World Test and One Day World Cup champions and won the T20 World Cup in 2021. By contrast, Afghanistan had never reached the semi-final of a major international tournament before. 

Their only previous T20 World Cup meeting had resulted in a four-run win for Australia at Adelaide in 2022.

Afghan cricket

Although cricket has been played in Afghanistan since the mid-19th century, it only became popular a century later because of expatriates who had learned the sport while living and working in Pakistan.

The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) was formed in 1995. Six years later, it became an affiliate member of the ICC (International Cricket Council), and two years later, it was admitted to the Asian Cricket Council.

After playing international cricket for over a decade, they were granted full ICC membership status in 2017 alongside Ireland. 

By contrast, Australia and England are the oldest international sides, the two playing the first test together in Melbourne in 1877.

The Taliban take over

After years of steady progress, Afghan cricket hit a roadblock in 2021, when the US forces withdrew from the country, and the hardline Taliban regime regained control of most areas of public life, including cricket administration.

For female players, the impact was immediate. Women were banned from playing the game, and some fled abroad. Whilst men were less affected, and they continue to play under the pr-Taliban flag, they have not been immune from the consequences. 

Australia has three times canceled bilateral series, citing human rights concerns, and  England has refused to play them outside international tournaments unless the ban on women’s sports is reversed; there have even been suggestions that the ICC could suspend, although so far, such threats have been empty words.

Like many smaller nations, they suffer from the fact that they are not considered a major public draw by some of the more traditional cricketing nations. Even under normal circumstances, a bilateral series with Afghanistan is tough to sell to broadcasters in India, Australia, or the UK.

Meanwhile, like Pakistan before them, because of security concerns and the unwillingness of international teams to travel, they are forced to play their home games in the Middle East, with Sharjah, in the UAE, now considered their ‘base.”

Previously, they also played home matches in Noida, India, near the border with Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban supports the team, not least because they help to project a positive image of the country abroad. In 2022, when the ACB faced financial difficulties, the government gave them an economic injection of US $1.2 million to tide them over.

They have also allowed Afghan players to enjoy star status at home, recognizing that it serves a valuable propaganda role.

Domestic structure

Despite a country that has seen more than its fair share of disturbances and civil upheaval in the past forty years, cricket in Afghanistan is thriving. Thousands of cricket clubs are spread across the 34 provinces of the country, catering to all levels of the game. The main domestic games are played in five stadiums dotted around the main cities of Kabul, Jost, and Jalalabad, supported by fifteen smaller grounds.

They also have their domestic competition, the Shpageeza (translated as six runs), an eight-team competition based in Kabul that attracts vast crowds.

There has also been an investment in the infrastructure, which means that talented players no longer need to move abroad to train in high-quality facilities, as these are now available at home.

Franchise cricket

A number of Afghan cricketers are now good enough to play in major franchise competitions like the Indian Premier League and Pakistan Super League and tournaments in Bangladesh, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. There, they rub shoulders with some of the best players in the world, which helps raise their own standards.

Their success and the money they earn encourage others to follow in their footsteps.

Rashid Khan, one of the stars of the current team, helped the Gujarat Titans win the Indian Premier League in 2022 and reach the final again the following year.

He was also part of the Lahore Qalanders team that won back-to-back PSLs in 2022 and 2023 and the MI New York side that triumphed in the first edition of Major League cricket.

Foreign coaches

Foreign coaches, particularly from India, have also helped develop the men’s team. Former Indian players like Laichand Rajput, Manoj Prabhakar, and Ajay Jadeja have all spent spells in the dugout. Current head coach Jonathan Trott played in 52 Tests and 68 ODIs for England before retiring due to stress-related illness.

They have helped bring not only expertise but also an element of professionalism to the men’s team. For example, the gamesmanship they were accused of during their vital win over Bangladesh is something more typically associated with some of the more established nations at this World Cup.

It is still a surprise

Whilst Afghan cricket's progress has been rapid, and some have suggested that they have achieved more in twenty-five years than other nations do in sixty, it is still a surprise that they reached this stage at the expense of Australia.

That is because Australia is renowned for having that indefinable quality of a ‘winning mentality.” 

It is a mindset shaped by strong self-belief, grit, determination, and the ability to deflect any criticism, buoyed by the underlying certainty in one’s own methods.

That was typified by their performance at the last World Cup, where they started slowly in the group matches before winning nine in a row, including the final against India.

They could stop a winning machine dead in its tracks to the Afghan's credit.

The semi-final

Now, they face the prospect of a semi-final with South Africa in Trinidad. Again, they will start as the underdogs, losing both previous T20Is against them.

However, that may be to their advantage because it may lead the South Africans to underestimate them, which could be a big mistake, especially on a pitch that may offer some help to the Afghan spinners.

Even if their World Cup journey ends in Trinidad, Afghan cricketers can still be proud of how they performed in this tournament and regard Australia's defeat as a watershed moment.

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