Andy Flower: Afghanistan’s T20 World Cup team ‘carries hopes of a nation’

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Andy Flower has had a soft spot for Afghan cricket for a while. As the head coach of England Lions he was instrumental in setting up an unofficial Test in the United Arab Emirates in 2016, where Rashid Khan lit up the match with figures of 12 for 122 on his first‑class debut.

So it was a no-brainer when Flower was offered a position as Afghanistan’s team consultant for the T20 World Cup, jumping straight from his spell with Punjab Kings in the IPL. He has joined a team in turmoil – a late change of captain the least of the issues after the bloody Taliban takeover of the country.

The subsequent severe crackdown on the rights of women and girls has led many to question the appearance of Afghanistan in the World Cup at all, with a women’s team a condition of full ICC membership. The ICC’s current take is one of watchful waiting, though it is due to discuss the issue at its next meeting after the World Cup.

The Taliban’s position is shrouded in statement and counter‑statement and, while a few of the Afghanistan women’s cricket team escaped, the rest are in hiding. The Afghan cricket board’s new chairman, Azizullah Fazli, told Al Jazeera earlier this month that the Taliban stance was “officially no ban on women’s sport”, a contradiction of earlier statements.

Afghanistan’s Super 12 campaign starts in Sharjah against Scotland on Monday. The route through will not be easy. They need to win against the two qualifiers and beat one of India, Pakistan and New Zealand. Flower, though, thinks it is achievable.

“The advantage we have with our spinners is that they’re bloody good at what they do. Rashid and Mujeeb [Ur Rahman] have some mystery about them, they play a lot but they’re still not easy to pick and, even if you can pick them, they’re not easy to score quickly against. Those two allied with Mohammad Nabi gives us a potential 12 overs of spin in an area of the world where spin is effective.”

Related: The ICC must stand with Afghan women – or it stands for nothing | Emma John

He is also full of praise for the top three, especially the brilliant wicketkeeper, Rahmanullah Gurbaz. “He’s the best batsman in the team, even at 20, with excellent technique, a great attitude and an attacking style of play against speed or spin. He’s going to be the mainstay of Afghan batting over the next 10 years and, if he doesn’t make his name in this tournament, he will soon.

“I’ve worked with a number of the Afghanistan players in franchise cricket and I’ve really enjoyed my interaction with them. They’re really good pros off the field and when they play the same franchise leagues they train in the gym together, do recovery sessions in the pool together, eat together. It is a small but powerful little cricket community they’ve got going. I really respect them for the way they play the game as well. They’re brave and aggressive.”

The coaching team is spearheaded by the former South Africa all-rounder Lance Klusener and completed by Richard Halsall, the fielding coach during Flower’s England tenure, Nawroz Manghal and Shaun Tait. There are language barriers: Flower speaks no Pashto and not all the players speak English. But he has found that by judicious use of the hands, tone of voice and cricket lingo, communication is pretty good. And, if time allows, he is keen to explore their views on what is happening at home.

“The Afghanistan cricket story is an amazing story, the rate of their development as a cricketing nation is incredible: in developing their domestic system, generating interest in the game, setting up a T20 league and developing a squad of players who are really competitive – especially in the shortest form. And doing it all in an environment of turmoil at home.”

It looks likely that Australia will pre-empt any ICC decision and postpone the men’s Test against Afghanistan scheduled for Tasmania in late November. Flower who, together with his teammate Henry Olonga, held their own black‑armband protest against Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe during the 2003 World Cup, is not so sure that isolation is the right answer.

“There are many examples of strength of protest in sporting context – South Africa around sporting sanctions, the Berlin Olympics, Michael Holding’s well‑documented communications around racism, BLM and everything that has happened in sport since, but I think people must be careful about throwing their weight around when perhaps they don’t fully understand the context of the cricket situation in the country. Ultimately the result of any protest must be that you want good to come of it and not harm. Is what Australia is doing beneficial to Afghanistan cricket in the future?

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers but it seems prudent to me to recognise that the men’s team is much beloved by their people and is carrying the hopes and dreams of a nation with them. Sanctions are not necessarily appropriate for every situation.”

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