The citizens of Whangarei (pronounced fangaray) might have been thinking that there was an Afghan music festival in town. Maybe they thought some famous Afghan artist who commanded a huge following had a concert there, and that was why there were so many people of Afghan origin making a din at the usually somnolent Cobham Oval.

Partly right. Mujeeb Zadran can be considered an artist. So can Qais Ahmed. Darwish Rasooli too. These are the performers in Afghanistan’s incredible campaign at the ICC Under-19 World Cup, one that started with a win over two-time winners Pakistan, where they put on just the kind of show their raucous fans wanted.

The moment they sealed that five-wicket win, 150-odd Afghan fans, most of whom drove down from Auckland, stormed the Cobham Oval, flags waving and throats screaming. They engulfed their team, embraced their batters, and celebrated with them. The security personnel – trained to tackle the odd streaker or two – could only watch this mob execute an en masse pitch invasion, as public melted into performance.

With that, Afghanistan’s underdog tag should have been put in the shredder and its pieces burnt. It was their third consecutive win against Pakistan. It was the Asian Champions reaffirming that their victory in Malaysia was no fluke, as if the first drubbing of Pakistan in that tournament was not proof enough.

Now, calling them underdogs gets them angry. Shafiqullah Stanikzai, the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s CEO, told ESPN before the tournament, “We hate to be called underdogs. We will be going to the World Cup as a strong contender.”

Now, having made their first global semi-final in an ICC event, perhaps we will recognise them for what they are:

The tournament’s showstoppers.

‘Everything to lose’

You might put Afghanistan’s 202-run win against hosts New Zealand on Thursday down to a case of the underdogs punching above their weight, taking advantage of the fact that they have nothing to lose. Afghan skipper Naveen-ul-Haq would disagree. “We have everything to lose. There are so many things on the line for us.”

If you need reminding, have a look at the black armbands the players were wearing in their quarter-final in Christchurch, a reminder of the two separate terror attacks that hit the country in the last 24 hours. “Like coaching in a war movie”, their coach Andy Moles described it, when he was in charge of the senior team. That is the reality these players will return to, the reality that cricket keeps some of them away from.

Afghanistan’s underdog tag should have been put in the shredder and its pieces burnt after they beat Pakistan (Image: ICC)
Afghanistan’s underdog tag should have been put in the shredder and its pieces burnt after they beat Pakistan (Image: ICC)

One of those attacks was in Jalalabad, which has close ties with Afghan cricket. It lies less than 50 km from Pakistan’s border, and provided the country with its pioneering batch of cricketers, who picked up the game in Pakistani refugee camps. Now, cricket in turn is picking up Afghanistan.

“Sports is a better option than the many other things in our country,” says Khaliq-dad-Noori, a former Afghanistan international who is assistant coach with this team. “It’s easy [for the youth] to apply for police and army jobs, but there are casualties. Then the other thing we are facing is the problem of drugs that is gripping the whole world. But those who are in sports are given a lot of respect.”

Against New Zealand, cricket’s latest Test entrant earned the respect of the entire tournament. Newer teams typically have a strong bowling attack but struggle to put runs on the board consistently, and Afghanistan have been no different in the past. They have crossed 200 only 12 times in 36 matches at this level.

But consistency is appearing slowly, like wet cement setting: the last four times they batted first, they have crossed the 200 mark, and all since October 2017. Their eventual score of 309/6 on Thursday was the first time they crossed 300 against a full-member team, having done it twice before against associates.

“We are not underdogs, we are full members,” affirmed Naveen after the game. “We are Asia cup champions, proving ourselves at the World Cup. It’s not like we’re beating anyone by chance.”

No underdogs

Central to their 202-run win, the biggest margin of defeat for New Zealand Under-19s, was the 117-run opening stand. The ballast to the innings was then provided by Baheer Shah, who scored an overdue half-century. Shah has a first-class average of 121, a number that puts him above Don Bradman (minimum 1,000 runs), and so he was in the public eye in the lead-up to the tournament.

He made up for the failure of Rasooli, who has been consistent for Afghanistan at No 5. But the score was set up by Azmatullah Omarzai’s 66 off 23 balls, helping Afghanistan loot 116 runs in the last 10 overs.

Azmatullah Omarzai hit 66 off 23 balls, helping Afghanistan loot 116 runs in the last 10 overs (Image: ICC)
Azmatullah Omarzai hit 66 off 23 balls, helping Afghanistan loot 116 runs in the last 10 overs (Image: ICC)

If Azmatullah’s knock would have made a few T20 scouts glance, they will be drooling over Mujeeb Zadran. Mujeed is the second player with senior international experience in this side. His ESPNcricinfo profile lists his bowling style as right-arm off-break, but he rarely bowled that delivery. Instead, he relied on a deceptive mix of carrom balls and googlies, all delivered from a considerable height with a gangly action.

Mujeed had only one wicket in the previous three matches, but made full use of the element of surprise, with the New Zealand batters playing him for the first time. He and leg-spinner Qais Ahmed picked up four wickets each, shooting out the young Black Caps for 107.

Afghanistan also have a left-arm wrist-spinner in their ranks, and play Australia next at the same venue. With Australia traditionally struggling against spin, they will back themselves to set up an all Asian final.

The first male international cricketer born in the 21st century has been produced by Afghanistan. If you believed in signs, then this might convince you that Afghanistan’s time has come, that they are the team to beat in the semi-final, and could win the Under-19 World Cup. But if you have been watching them play so far, you would say that anyway.