There are three banks in and around the old VCA Stadium in Nagpur’s Civil Lines. A Bank of Maharashtra board stares at the hundreds standing in front of it on a Saturday morning, presumably for regular weekly transactions. Walk closer, and you see a group of Afghans in their khet partugs and Peshawari turbans, sitting around a sugarcane juice vendor. It is 10 AM, and they have been here for 4 hours already. Their mates are inside, collecting tickets for the knock-out fixture against Zimbabwe, to be played later in the afternoon.
The rest of the queue snakes towards latched steel gates, and your heart fills with joy knowing so many people are up for qualifiers involving Associates. Alas, no, this is the crowd waiting to collect tickets for India games, which they’ve won through a lottery. Most of them had applied with 30-40 duplicate accounts, and managed to get a single ticket, or at best, two.
Walk further ahead and you see a ticket collection board, with a queer white plaster right in the middle. It is where “Jamtha”, the other stadium’s location, is written. Someone, somewhere, had decided it was a better idea to sell tickets at the other VCA stadium, 20 km from the stadium. And all it took was a white paper. When Scotland’s fans arrived at their stadium for their second fixture on Thursday, they had no idea. After all, it was just a little change. Ticket sales and collection had been shifted from one VCA stadium to another, in the blink of an eye. Welcome to the Great Indian Ticket Tamasha.
The VCA stadium isn’t full by any means – there are hardly 500 fans in. But it feels like the Associate cricket equivalent of Circus Maximus – not there in the thousands, but certainly right up there in terms of passion. “Shahzad, Shahzad” they croon, as he dispatches one Chatara delivery after another – first a front foot pull that sets the surface afire, then a blistering cut, followed by a hook right over short fine leg’s head. A swivelling six follows, but his innings is over, shortly afterwards. There is a certain melancholic stillness that follows – an immobile Shahzad rooted to his crease, and a muted crowd in grim acknowledgement. It is all over, at least until Nabi comes in.
By now, Afghanistan are 63 for 4, having dug themselves a hole that seems certain to get deeper, as Panyangara and Masakadza put the brakes on. Samiullah Shenwari has just shadow-taught Noor Ali Zadran how a single to long off is played, after the latter holed out with an almighty heave down the fielder’s throat. Before he even faces a ball, the Afghans go “Nabi! Nabi!”, and it feels like he’s on 50 already. He bats like he is, along with the steady Shenwari, who isn’t ashamed to go well under a run a ball.
They nudge, they drop, and Nabi pulls one occasionally for four, but Afghanistan are still nowhere close to a target that would get them home and dry. Nabi goes all in, down the ground to Sean Williams’ looped off-spinner, and misses. It was good while it lasted, you think, but Mutumbami has missed the stumping. Nabi is busy collecting those generous byes. They play on.
By over 17, Zimbabwe have lost it. Nabi is in full flow, but so is Shenwari now. A pacy one is pitched in the block hole outside off. Shenwari kneels and tonks it below the sightscreen. No more holding back, just powerful hitting and clinical execution. Zimbabwe contribute by way of wides and byes, tallying 25 runs by the end of the innings. Zimbabwe’s target is 187, after Shafqatullah Shafaq has had his own helping of sixes and fours. It seems a winning total, considering Afghanistan’s bowling performances thus far.
Desi music plays as Sibanda and Masakadza walk in. There is animated discussion behind the batsman, between ‘keeper Shahzad and Noor Ali Zadran at first slip. It is a face-off to decide where third man should stand. An agreement is finally reached, as Shahzad sends Zadran up to the crease. Sibanda is waiting to take strike, but Zadran stands at the crease, and shadow-cuts one to third man. His imaginary shot beats the fielder. Immediately, Gulbadin Naib is asked to shift a few paces to his left. Shahzad and Zadran have a hearty laugh.
This isn’t your regular international side on autopilot. Their captain whistles every second ball to have his fieldsmen at the right places. They oblige. There are as many as three former captains in this Afghan side, but it doesn’t feel like it.
Samiullah Shenwari is not going to be the first name you would remember from this Afghan side. He doesn’t have Shahzad’s flamboyance, Nabi’s aggression, Hassan’s raw gladiatorial muscle, Shapoor’s pace or the pregnant possibilities of youth.
He’s your workhorse, a skilful cricketer who succeeds by grit and sheer refusal to give an inch to the opposition. When he walks in, his side are 61 for 3. At 63 for 4, he admonishes Noor Ali for being irresponsible and teaches him how it’s done. When on the field, he dives to stop a meaty square cut, like stopping it is the only way to stop apocalypse. The crowd cheer.
Another time, he comes on to bowl and gets it down the leg side. He’s furious with himself. The next ball, a flighted one that comes in, is caught by a diving Dawlat Zadran at short midwicket. Before he knows it, the ball spills out of his hand. Shenwari, unlike most bowlers at this stage, makes no face. Instead, he applauds the attempt. Zadran is shifted to short fine leg, and Nabi takes his place.
Next over, he has Malcolm Waller in all kinds of trouble with a legspinner’s wet dream – flight, loop, dip and sharp turn at the last moment. Waller just looks on, wondering how he’s escaped unscathed from this. As his spell ends, there is a facsimile of said ball, and this one hits the outside of off stump. Waller goes.
Towards the end, as the Zimbabweans seem to be going through the motions, tumbling down to a certain defeat, he’s sprinting from cover. Donald Tiripano seems to be comfortably ambling to the crease. Shenwari hits, and there’s a half-appeal. Everyone heads back to their positions. Shahzad is ready to crouch for the next ball. The big screen displays “OUT”. Everyone comes together.
A few minutes later, it’s all over. They have just thrashed a side that usually gets automatic qualification to these tournaments, in the most lopsided contest in this group. Shahzad does his moonwalk, Gulbadin and Zadran do the cock-a-hoop heel smash, a la Brett Lee. Stanikzai just stands by the stumps, hands on chin, grinning a million dollars. This is calypso cricket, Afghan edition.
They do as their coach extraordinaire Taj Malik once quoted from an Afghan poem.
“Pull up your sleeves
Come on to the streets
And start dancing
Because happiness is rare in a poor man’s life”
Afghanistan have qualified to their third straight World Cup, and this time, with their strengths in alignment with the conditions, who knows what surprises they could spring? Sri Lanka, England, West Indies and South Africa await, and boy, shouldn’t they be taking note of a side that has grown from strength to strength in the past few months.