Asia Cup 2018 was played in September in the United Arab Emirates among the 5 ICC full members - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. Hong Kong, the associate that won the 2018 Asia Cup qualifier, joined as the sixth team. Abu Dhabi and Dubai cricket grounds were the venues for all the matches.

The tournament consisted of two groups of 3 teams. The top two teams from each group then proceeded to the Super Four section of the competition where they played each other to decide the top two finalists. India won the tournament while Afghanistan, due to a couple of narrow defeats, failed to qualify for the finals, but not before shaking things up a bit.

This was Afghanistan’s first Asia cup after attaining the ICC full status and third overall. They had an IPL and an international superstar in Rashid Khan. An explosive opening batsman in Shahzad and a super calm veteran Nabi in the ranks. They are not the team to be feared yet, but every team is wary of them especially in Asian conditions.

They must have been expecting a better Asia Cup this time. A better fight. A better result. A qualification into the finals and perhaps a win. Why not? They are always fighting. For test status. For world cup qualifications. For everything. They win some, they lose some, but they are always fighting. Fight is what everyone else would expect from them after this Asia Cup.

Afghanistan started the tournament with a couple of daunting wins against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Utterly comprehensive victories by 91 and 136 runs respectively.

In the Super Four stage match against Pakistan, Hashmatullah Shahidi and Asghar Afghan helped them reach a defendable 257. Pakistan made a slow start and had to rush in the end. Afghanistan had their task cut out when Aftab Alam had to defend 10 of last 6 deliveries. He couldn’t. Shoaib Malik won the match for Pakistan with 3 deliveries to spare. It was a heart-break for Afghanistan. Sadly, not the last time in the tournament.

In the next match, Afghanistan had Bangladesh on the ropes at 87 for 5. Imrul Kayes and Mahmudullah brought Bangladesh to safety with 128 run stand. Chasing 250, Shahidi and Afghan shepherded the Afghanistan innings again, but they eventually fell short by just 3 runs chasing 8 in the last over. Another instance when Afghanistan could not cross the line despite coming so close to it.  

India fielded a second-string attack against Afghanistan. Mohammad Shahzad did not spend a second wondering how it was and plummeted them repeatedly until people stopped talking luck and started talking class. This time Afghanistan did not give up.

When things looked down and out with India sitting pretty at 110 for no loss, Nabi induced a mistake from Rayudu. Afghanistan kept pushing and kept taking wickets until India needed 7 of last over with just 1 wicket in hand. Rashid Khan took the ball. He was injured. He took it nonetheless. He had to. When India needed 1 of last 2 deliveries, Jadeja holed out in the deep handing Afghanistan a tie. It was no less than a win for Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is making a habit of pushing good teams. They will soon start toppling a few. They seem to be on the verge of a breakthrough. The teams they will topple are going to wonder what hit them. Afghanistan may not have won the tournament, but they have won hearts. They are winning it for a long time now.

On paper, Afghanistan were the weakest team of the tournament. On the field they proved to be much stronger. Two comprehensive wins, two brutally close last over defeats and a tie against the eventual winners. Performance wise they were the second-best team of the tournament. Such was their rise in the Asia Cup 2018. 

World Cup 2019 is a great opportunity for them to show what they can achieve.  

For that Afghanistan need exposure. They cannot simply be a team that fights. Cannot simply be a team that has nothing to lose. Unless they go through the pressure of crossing the line, they will fall short when the time comes. They have learned how to lose. Now must learn how to cross the line.

Cricket has given war-torn Afghanistan something to be happy about. IPL becomes a national festival when Nabi and Rashid play for Sunrisers Hyderabad. Kids now have local heroes to idolize. They can hope for a better future when all they see around them is despair. And hope is a great thing. Maybe the only thing. Afghanistan must push for glory. Nothing suggests they won’t.

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