Cricket outsider Afghanistan grabs World Cup attention by reaching semis

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There have been wild celebrations from Kabul to Kandahar. Fans have cheered and tossed firecrackers in Mumbai and New Delhi. And in Cape Town and Pretoria fans threw parties.

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In England, the fanfare was a bit subdued as the nation is more preoccupied on how Gareth Southgate’s overrated squad will perform in the Euro 2024 tournament that has entered the business end of the competition.

As champagne was poured out in these cities around the world, the lights went out in Melbourne and Sydney as Australia, the overwhelming favourite to lift the World Twenty20 Cup was sent home packing.

There was also more grief for co-hosts the West Indies and the United States as they saw their glorious runs ended in the Super 8 stage.

By all accounts, this has by far been the best and most exciting Twenty20 tournament, as there was an equal balance between bat and ball.

For a change, the bowlers were not led to the slaughterhouse by the free-wielding batsmen, as has been the case in past competitions. The bowlers enjoyed a rare glimpse of sunshine and there wasn’t a glut of boundaries and sixes and the 200-run mark was breached on just a few occasions.

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The tournament now has reached the semifinal stage, but even without knowing who will get their hands on this magnificent trophy, it is Afghanistan, a country ravaged by war and one of the lesser lights of this month-long extravaganza, that has turned heads. It has risen like a phoenix from the ashes on the cricket field and drawn attention to the country again — this time in a positive way.

Can Afghanistan’s fairytale run continue? Next stop for this rank outsider is another surprise story and that’s South Africa. The two interlopers meet in Trinidad on Thursday while India travels to Guyana on the same day to face defending champion England.

After a shaky start, England rediscovered its form by firing on all cylinders to hammer the U.S. to make the last four.

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England versus unbeaten India should be a fascinating contest, as will Afghanistan and South Africa, who have never reached an ICC final.

Afghanistan’s story is unique in that most of the players live in the United Arab Emirates and no international matches are played in the country since the Taliban government assumed power after the withdrawal of the American forces some three years ago.

While cricket is by far most popular sport in the country, most of its international matches are hosted in the UAE but Australia twice pulled out of a bilateral series against the country citing “deteriorating human rights for women and girls in the country under Taliban rule.”

Afghanistan pulled off the biggest upset in the Twenty20 tournament when it defeated unbeaten Australia by 21 runs on the weekend in a thriller in St, Vincent. Aussie paceman Pat Cummins took a hat-trick to limit Afghanistan to 148 for six after openers Rahmanullah Gurbaz and Ibrahim Zadran put on 118 for the first wicket.

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Australia stumbled with the bat and was shot out for 127 with only Glenn Maxwell (59 off 41 balls) coming to grips with the tight Afghani bowling, for whom Guldabin Naib grabbed four wickets.

Afghanistan then pulled out a dramatic eight-run victory over Bangladesh in a rain-affected clash in St, Vincent to enter the semis and make sure the Aussies wouldn’t sneak through the backdoor.

Afghanistan posted a modest total of 115 for five on Monday and skipper Rashid Khan grabbed four for 23 to dismiss Bangladesh for 105.

Also, coach Jonathan Trott, a former England player, may be unique in international sport as he has never been to the country he coaches.

“It’s really difficult,” he said. “For the players, being away from home all the time, it’s really tricky. They don’t ever play any home series, they’re always away.”

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But that has not stopped him from guiding the squad this far.

Also glad to see Australia on its way home was India skipper Rohit Sharma. Sharma has not forgotten Nov. 19, 2023, when the Aussies stunned Sharma and a billion Indian fans by lifting the World Cup (50 overs) at the 132,000-seat Narendra Modi Stadium.

India reached the final on a 10-game winning streak and was red-hot favourite to win the trophy for the third time on home soil. But Cummins and the Aussies had other ideas and romped to victory.

Sharma had tears in his eyes and was not seen in public for several days after that embarrassing loss. Cummins also had led the Aussies to victory over Sharma and India in the World Test Final.

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On Monday, Sharma finally got his revenge over the rampaging Australians as he plundered 92 in a display of magnificent batting in St. Lucia. He led India to 205 for five and few will forget his treatment of Mitchell Starc.

He belted four sixes as Starc conceded 29 in his over as Sharma got his 92 off 41 balls.

Australia managed 181 for seven thanks to Travis Head making 76 in a losing cause.

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