Hrishikesh Kanitkar is a former Test and ODI player for India, and a veteran batsman on the domestic cricket circuit. He captained Rajasthan to consecutive Ranji Trophy titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
In exactly two months the ICC World Twenty20 will commence in Sri Lanka. Defending champions England will be keen to show the world that they are not only worthy champions but also can defend their title.
The way the England team is playing at the moment it's not too hard to imagine them putting up a strong defense of the title. On the other hand India, which has been ICC World Twenty20 champions in the past, will be looking to regain lost glory. It will be the perfect way to begin the new season on a high. Apart from these two teams one can never discount teams like South Africa, Australia, and West Indies and of course the home side, Sri Lanka.
Apart from the Test-playing nations there are two teams that have had to qualify by playing the World Twenty20 Qualifiers which were held in the UAE in March. Ireland beat Afghanistan in the final of this competition by five wickets, but both are in the competition as the finalists from the Qualifiers get entry automatically.
Ireland, due to its close proximity to England, has a well-established club cricket system and has quite a few of their players participating in the County Championship in England for various county teams for a number of years now. This means they have the advantage of experience. Afghanistan, on the other hand have, hardly any experience at the international level, specially at an event like the World Twenty20.
The story of the Afghanistan team has been nothing short of inspiring. When we think of Afghanistan, most of us think the turmoil the country has been going through for a number of years now. Most of the stories coming out to us are pretty negative; stories of war and corruption. There are millions of people in Afghanistan who are working for a better future for their country. For these countrymen the Afghanistan cricket team is a ray of hope; a shining beacon to follow.
Not only have they played in the World Twenty20 held in the West Indies a couple of years back, they have played consistently since and have qualified for September's edition. For a war torn country where eking out a day to day living is a challenge, this is a great achievement.
Most of the Afghanistan cricketers have learnt the game in Pakistan, in refugee camps. Some of them play club cricket in Peshawar and Quetta but most play in the extensive Afghan club and provincial system. A lot of the national players have learnt the nuances of cricket playing in the lower divisions of international cricket conducted by the ICC or on earlier tours.
One of the strengths of this Afghan team is their ability to deal with pressure. With the tough conditions and challenges that they face in their everyday lives, facing up to the pressures of the sport, even at the highest level must be comparatively easy. As a result of these challenges they face, they have the attitude of trying to win every match notwithstanding who they play against. They are not easily intimidated.
It is quite easy to see why they qualified for the World Twenty20; they hit the ball clean and hard all the way down the order. Their captain Nawroz Mangal is a good leader and a positive influence on the team. The team is coached by a former Pakistan player, Kabir Khan.
Another indication that Afghanistan cricket is moving in the right direction can be judged from their appointment of Geoff Lawson, the former Australian fast bowler, as coaching consultant for the Under 19-team during the recently concluded U-19 Asia Cup that was held at Kaula Lumpur. With Geoff's great experience as a cricketer and an international coach the young Afghan players will have learnt a great deal and in time will be able to use the knowledge they have gleaned to their advantage when they find a place in the main team.
By giving due importance to the junior cricket the Afghanistan Cricket Board is on the right track to ensure that they have a steady supply of young talent as and when they need to replace someone from the main them. The board has also been sending their players for specialist coaching camps to India and Sri Lanka keeping in mind the conditions the players will face during the World Twenty20. The team is also slated to play against Australia in August in a full one-day international.
A couple of new grounds with turf wickets have opened recently in Kabul and Jallalabad. Most other pitches are either dirt of concrete. Cricket can be played all year round in Jallalabad though Kabul is under snow four months of the year. There are coaching programs for girls as well as boys and many children have been attracted to the cricket community rather than the other not so positive avenues open to them so cricket is having a significant positive social influence all over the country. Most of the funding comes from the ICC, the MCC, and the Asian Cricket Council. Some NGOs also run independently funded programs.
At September's tournament, this team will be the ambassadors for their country at the international stage. They will carry the hopes of their countrymen and women. After all, several hundred thousand people already play cricket at the organized level in the country. With such popularity that cricket has gained, it is possible that these set of players act as catalysts to help bring positive change and peace to the region in their own small way.
Recently, to celebrate the opening of the new Jallalabad ground the national team played the U-19 team in front of a full house of 14,000 spectators and to a nationwide TV audience. This clearly shows how much they love the game in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan find themselves in Group A alongside current Twenty20 champions England and the 2007 champions India. It's a tough draw for sure but with the attitude that they have shown so far and their willingness to fight it out, it's possible for them to earn the reputation of being called giant killers.