Another hurdle for cricket's spirited aspirants

Ireland and Afghanistan, the newest entrants to Test cricket, will soon begin the uphill task of qualifying for the biggest tourney in cricket - the World Cup.

Afghanistan should play fearless cricket in the qualifiers, says its former coach Lalchand Rajput (second from left).   -  R. V. Moorthy

In the summer of 2003, Kenya had kindled hopes of joining cricket’s elite nations with a run to the semifinals of the World Cup. It, however, proved to be a flash in pan. Its African peer Zimbabwe had already started stagnating; players had moved out of the country and its Test status revoked (it returned later in the decade but by then the side had lost its sheen).

Around this time, two new teams - Afghanistan and Ireland - emerged on the fringes. The nations invested long years in divisional cricket before crawling into International Cricket Council (ICC) events. While Ireland shot to fame with its defeat of England in the 2011 World Cup, Afghanistan kept improving, too; its players came up with consistent performances and both countries participated in the 2015 World Cup.

In its first appearance, it stunned Ireland in a group fixture.

Read: A perennial struggle for recognition

In the last three years, the situation has improved immensely for the two countries. They were given the Test status last year, paving the way for a boost in the quality of their cricket. Moreover, two of Afghanistan’s cricketers - Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi - were picked for the Indian Premier League (IPL) last year; it marked another historic moment in cricket. The full membership has changed the perception about the two nations, which are set to begin their Test sojourn later this year.

Stern test awaits

But before that, they face the uphill task of qualifying for the World Cup in 2019, which will field only 10 countries. They will face a stern test from the other two heavyweights - the West Indies and Zimbabwe - when the qualifiers begin in Zimbabwe from Sunday.

Many believe Afghanistan has the potential to reach the World Cup. Some think that if neither Ireland nor Afghanistan qualify, it won’t be a good advertisement for the game. After all, after having joined the elite club, they will be banished from the biggest tournament in the sport.

Read - Disappearing world: West Indies, rivals scramble for 2019 lifeline

Lalchand Rajput, a former cricketer and erstwhile coach of Afghanistan, feels both teams will “find it tough” in the qualifiers. “It won’t be easy. Afghanistan and Ireland will find it tough. But they have played really well in the past and should have that confidence,” Rajput told Sportstar.

The seasoned coach, who guided Afghanistan to its Test status last year, believes stand-in captain Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Zadran will have to come good. “Even West Indies and Zimbabwe will be going all out to clinch berths, but then, spin will be the key for Afghanistan. The team will be pinning its hopes on both Rashid and Mujeeb. On turning tracks, they are dangerous,” Rajput cautioned.

Seasoned Rashid

Afghanistan may face some trouble with its captain Asghar Stanikzai missing out. But Rajput feels Rashid, who now has enough experience thanks to participation in franchise leagues around the world, will be able to guide the team well. “He has now played in different conditions and has shared the dressing room with some of the big names. He has certainly picked up a lot, and that will help,” Rajput said.

Both teams will have to believe in themselves to come out victorious, he adds. Afghanistan will benefit with the approach of playing “fearless cricket,” according to the coach. “The batting will have to click. Afghanistan has played fearless cricket throughout and that’s how they should go about it. If batsmen back the bowlers, Afghanistan would be tough to beat,” the coach predicted.

With at least four teams vying for two slots, dreams may be quashed.