Sport can be cruel. Yesterday’s champions become today’s no-hopers, top teams sink below the level required to remain competitive. Younger players and fans know only failures, older ones try to convince them of the power of the glory days.
Take a look at the World Cup table. The three teams at the bottom are Afghanistan, South Africa and the West Indies. South Africa were the No. 1 team not so long ago and West Indies twice World champions. Afghanistan, except against India, have looked somewhat out of their depth, leaving the romantics struggling to find inspiring things to say about them.
An oft-repeated story
Yet in recent years, Afghanistan’s has been the story of cricket. A team put together in times of strife in the refugee camps of another country, whose ‘home’ turf is a third country. The story has been told many times, yet it still surprises commentators that someone like Mohammed Nabi looks so “cool and calm” in the face of “great pressure” as he did while nearly getting his team over the line.
A bit of perspective here. Nabi has been through worse than a yorker-rich over from Jasprit Bumrah. His father was kidnapped and held for ransom while his country was in turmoil.
At least one cricketer was killed by an American raid. Australian all-rounder Keith Miller put things in perspective when he said, "Pressure? There's no pressure in cricket. Real pressure is when you are flying a Mosquito with a Messerschmitt up your a@$#!” No doubt Nabi and his mates will have their own definition of ‘pressure’. Cricket is unlikely to figure in it.
West Indies might have just squeezed into the World Cup with a five-run win over Scotland, aided by an umpiring decision because there was no DRS in the qualifying tournament.
But they have a team capable of playing with the big boys on level terms. Individual successes didn’t mesh well enough to carry them forward, however. Had they done well, made it to the final, it would have revived the game back home that’s been struggling in recent years against official corruption, diminishing pool of players, administrative apathy and the drawing power of other sports.
Both West Indies and South Africa lost key players through injury, but their decline recently has been the other story of cricket. Rebuilding can be a long and troubling process; after this performance, older players are likely to call it a day (Chris Gayle said before the tournament that this would be his last), and younger players will wonder if they can handle the transition.
It is a fate that Pakistan and Sri Lanka face too, although in their cases, there is still a mathematical chance that they could qualify. A slim one, though.
When the focus is on the big boys, there is a perverse delight to be had (besides the regular pleasure) when a less fancied team shows the world they can play the game too.
This year — and not for the first time in a World Cup — it has been Bangladesh’s turn to cause fancied teams periods of worry. They may not make it to the semifinals; too many things have to fall into place before that can happen. But they have displayed an energy and a never-say-die spirit that is the essence of all sport.
With some luck (and better catching) they could have added Australia to their list of scalps, along with South Africa and West Indies. David Warner, dropped on 10 went on to make 166, and Bangladesh’s reply of 333 (chasing 381) moved the match into the realm of the might-have-beens. In Shakib Al Hasan, seemingly at his peak at the age of 32, Bangladesh have the potential player of the tournament, an allrounder who has been carrying the team on his shoulders. Shakib’s centuries against England and West Indies were followed by a five-wicket haul against Afghanistan; performances that haven’t really got their due. Only Kapil Dev and Yuvaraj in the years that India won have done this double before.
Slower wickets, fewer runs
Bangladesh have two matches left, against India and Pakistan, and although they beat India in the 2007 World Cup and Pakistan in 1999, the odds are not in their favour. But Afghanistan’s performance against India would have given them cause for cheer. Slower wickets have ensured fewer runs and thus closer matches that have favoured the lesser teams.
The bottom three can take heart from India’s recovery after their disastrous performance in 2007. India bowed out of that World Cup in some disarray, having failed to qualify for the knockout.
The picture of the senior players with shocked expressions, some of them weeping openly, made an impact on a disappointed nation. Yet in four years’ time the team had been rebuilt and did well enough to win the World Cup. Sometimes defeat can force changes that lead to victory.