Afghanistan cricket is nothing to take lightly. They were the only team to beat the West Indies in the World T20, levelled an ODI series against them a few weeks ago, regularly using Zimbabwe and Ireland as punching bags and even beat Bangladesh in an ODI in Dhaka in a closely contested ODI series.
The latest sub-continental nation to be granted Test status fought hard in every game of the 2016 World T20 almost claiming the scalp of finalists England. A burgeoning first class structure and rapidly growing fans, who are passionate about one of the country’s most popular games, has seen Afghanistan jump out of obscurity, the topic of cricket’s newest underdog story.
Their team is an experienced one and with one of the most talented young bowlers in the world among their rank, they have a team that could take down giants. Armed with a newly leash at international cricket, it is less about what’s next for Afghanistan, but who’s next.
#5 Dawlat Zadran
One of the most promising fast bowlers to come out an associate nation, Zadran is famous for his slightly unorthodox action, which is reminiscent of Waqar Younis in his day. His performances in the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the Asia Cup Qualifier and the 2016 World T20 made for compelling viewing.
Consistently clocking over 140kph, his bowling will be an asset to his nation in tours outside Asia. His hard-hitting at the bottom of the order will also be valuable in what is a somewhat placid batting line-up. However, Dawlat is 29 and will look at these years of his peak to contribute to Afghanistan when they play their first Test.
#4 Asghar Stanikzai
The proud 29-year old captain of Afghanistan has stewarded the team brilliantly since their rise to the top amongst the associates. The captain is a solid middle order batsman, with the block-bash approach to batting Misbah-Ul-Haq demonstrated for many years. His captaincy has brought calm to the team, and his batting has formed the bedrock of what is a temperamental batting order.
A product of the Afghanistan youth set-up, his rise coincided with Afghanistan’s meteoric elevation through the World Cricket League Divisions. He scored his maiden ODI century this year at Afghanistan’s adopted home ground in Greater Noida against rivals Ireland.
#3 Gulbadin Naib
A hard-hitting batsman and a more than handy fast medium bowler, Naib has overcome great adversity to make it at this level. His central contract providing for his unemployed father, his mother, who contracted hepatitis and his disabled sister, Naib’s cricket career is a truly inspiring one. The 26-year old began his athletic career as an amateur body-builder before cricket consumed his professional life.
His career has seen lows, including getting dropped from the Afghanistan team, before earning back his place. Recently, his quickfire batting and wicket-taking abilities with the ball was instrumental in Afghanistan’s ODI win over the West Indies at Gros Islet. His all-round skills will be a huge asset to the country, and his ambitions to open the batting could be career-changing.
#2 Mohammad Nabi
Holding the team together with both bat and ball, Nabi rose into Afghanistan’s team as a result of Pakistan’s influence over Afghan cricket. His parents moved to Peshawar during the Soviet invasion, leading to a passion for cricket from a young age.
The 32-year-old was inducted into the side when they were in the WCL Division 5, and his game has risen along with the fortunes of the team. His ODI bowling and batting averages of 30 and 32, are world-class and are a sign of things to come at the highest level.
The rock in the middle order, his consistent performances with the bat have seen Afghanistan through various obstacles time and again as his experience of playing club and domestic cricket in England, Pakistan and Bangladesh contributing to his evolution into one of Afghanistan's all time bests.
He continues to be a mentor to young players, a role model to the youth in Afghanistan and an ambassador for the sport in his country. He played his maiden IPL season for the Sunrisers Hyderabad earlier this year, with decent results.
#1 Rashid Khan
Seven wickets against the West Indies, a giant IPL contract, a revolution in leg-spin, record-breaking statistics and one of the reasons his country has made it this far. At 18 years old. Eighteen! To be fair, he looks more a middle-aged man than a teenager, but his rise to the top has been shocking.
He has 63 ODI wickets at 15 runs a wicket at just 4 runs an over, 42 T20I wickets at just 14, going at under 6 an over. Who is this kid and why is he so good? He’s something else, he’s Shahid Afridi on cocaine.
With the ability to turn the ball both ways, and bowling good lines and lengths at speeds north of the 95kph mark, Rashid Khan is unplayable on his day. And his day comes often. In the IPL, against some of the best players of spin, some of the biggest hitters in cricket, this teenager shone through, perplexing just about everyone.
He has the ability to rip through batting lineups for fun, grinning all the while. And he can bat too.
In two ODI matches versus the West Indies, he took 10 wickets as he delivered spells that were pure spin bowling gold. He is Afghanistan’s greatest find, and they need to know how to develop him because he will win them matches against the big boys. He will need to be taken care of by the ACB, before he’s taken to jail for his gross crimes against batsmen, everywhere.