Chennai. October 23. Afghanistan have waltzed to a first-ever victory over Pakistan and the celebrations are in full flow, with raucous singing and dancing.
Assistant coach Raees Ahmadzai picks up the steel lids used to cover the food in the dressing room and bashes them together as if they are musical instruments. Then head coach Jonathan Trott joins in with the dancing. The players have never seen this side of him before — but this is different.
Beating England at a World Cup was big but given the political undertones with Pakistan — in the last few weeks, thousands of Afghan refugees have been forced out of Pakistan — this win unleashed a different level of emotion.
‘I’ve never seen such scenes,’ Trott tells Mail Sport. ‘I’ll never understand how much it means but I could see it in their eyes so I felt like I had to join in.
‘Beating England was great but we didn’t want it to be a one-off. The win against Pakistan kicked us on.’ And if they can beat Australia on Tuesday they would be on the brink of a first World Cup semi-final.
Afghanistan are on the verge of qualifying for their first Cricket World Cup semi-final
A win against Australia on Tuesday will see them qualify for the knockouts
Jonathan Trott’s side have enjoyed a fine campaign in India winning four of their six matches notably upsetting the odds to beat England
Given the language barrier, Trott relies on simplicity to communicate.
‘I want each of them to take ownership,’ he says. ‘They can all play cricket. It’s about encouraging them to use their own minds to become the best players they can.’
It’s working. ‘The biggest shift under Trotty is how he empowers the players to take responsibility,’ says Mohsin Sheikh, Afghanistan’s performance analyst. ‘This place had a classroom-like environment before, where the players would just do what they were told because that’s the culture.
‘Now, we try to stimulate tactical discussions and leave it to the guys because they’re the ones playing.’
Training at the Wankhede Stadium begins with a meeting where Trott and his coaches reaffirm the message for the players to focus on their own strengths and to have the belief they can beat Australia. ‘From the start, I’ve said we’re not here to just compete. We’re here to win games,’ he insists.
Afghanistan train tirelessly in the 35°C (95°F) Mumbai heat, with batters running between wickets in the nets. More than three hours later, it’s a struggle to get them off the pitch. ‘Their love for the game is something else,’ says Trott. ‘These guys will bat for hours. I have to pull them out for their own sake. The resilience is crazy.’
Thirteen of the 15-man squad still reside in Afghanistan, where nine out of 10 people live in poverty. Most of them grew up playing cricket in refugee camps in north-west Pakistan. ‘Because life is so hard away from cricket, this is one of their few enjoyments,’ says Jason Douglas, strength and conditioning coach.
In the evenings, the players meet in each other’s rooms to socialise, drink tea and play Ludo. Rashid Khan’s room is the hub. ‘We are like family,’ says Rahmanullah Gurbaz, who smashed 80 against England. ‘We enjoy every moment together because we know how lucky we are.’
Speaking on his side’s victory against Jos Buttler’s side, Trott said: ‘Beating England was great but we didn’t want it to be a one-off’
Sachin Tendulkar (right) joined the team at training and spent time greeting the players
Afghanistan have now only lost to New Zealand and India so far in the tournament
They will be motivated to beat Australia after Pat Cummins’ side refused to play a bilateral series against them earlier this year
Naveen ul Haq adds: ‘Cricket is the only happiness we have. By winning games, we put smiles on the faces of our people. It’s more than a game for us.’
The next day, Sachin Tendulkar joins the team at training and spends three hours on the outfield, speaking to each player individually. Gurbaz says: ‘If I make a hundred against Australia, I will have to give my thanks to Sachin for what he has told me.’
Afghanistan’s motivation to beat Australia is fuelled by the Aussies’ refusal to play Afghanistan in a bilateral series earlier this year due to the Taliban’s restriction on women’s rights.
For Trott, might there be some more dancing if they conquer a fourth world champion?
‘Let’s wait,’ he says. ‘It’s emotional seeing the joy they bring to their people. Our WhatsApp group is full of players sharing videos of the celebrations in Kabul. The joy they provide is unmatched.’