In January 2009, Argentina hosted the ICC World Cricket League Division Three tournament. They were joined by Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, the Cayman Islands, Uganda and, fresh from promotion from Division Four, a plucky Afghanistan side, defying civil unrest and everyday danger. However, another promotion followed and, eight years on, Test cricket has a new addition. Nick Friend tells the story of how the Afghan miracle was so nearly curtailed in the most unlikely of cricketing capitals.
They say sport is cruel, a game of fine margins: the fingertip save that denies the last-minute equaliser; the forehand that lands a fraction long on match point; the crucial dart that clips the outer wire; the winger whose heel falls into touch as he dives full length to score in the corner.
And as the Argentine cricket team prepare for their South American Championships campaign next month – a tournament they are hosting for the first time since 2013 – one cannot help but wonder what might have been.
Eight years ago, Argentina were in the ICC’s World Cricket League Division Three – a real fairytale story for a country in which cricket hardly registers in the lexicon of the population’s vast football-loving majority. Despite their relegation two years previous from Division Two, a tournament on home soil with World Cup qualification not beyond the realms of possibility represented a huge opportunity for the South Americans.
However, as they came down from Division Two, they were joined by Afghanistan – a side on the rise, having won Division Five and then swept all aside in Division Four the following year. The rest, as it is said, is history. Promotion followed once again for the Afghans, while the Argentine side continued their slide through the divisions.
Yet, it could all have been so different. As the two countries met at Buenos Aires’ Hurlingham Club on a sweltering January afternoon during the height of the South American summer, it appeared unfathomable that two teams so seemingly evenly matched could, just eight years later, enjoy such profoundly contrasting fortunes.
Now outside the World League system after suffering relegation from Division Five in 2012 and having lost a recent winner-takes-all promotion series against the Cayman Islands, Argentina find themselves somewhat marooned in cricketing purgatory, devoid of even semi-regular ICC competition.
“If your national team isn’t playing, why would you play?”, asks Lautaro Musiani, who will captain the country as they look to regain the South American crown they relinquished to Chile in a thrilling final last year.
“Would you sponsor my shirts if nobody’s going to wear them? It’s hard enough to get funding as it is, but if they’re not putting on international games then why bother?
“There are no rankings. The three-match series against the Cayman Islands was organised on the fly, there are no scoresheets from it online.
“At one point, nobody even knew how it was possible for us to qualify. If you go and look at the ICC global pathway, it just starts with the World Cricket League Championship – they don’t even care about us.”
Musiani’s frustration is a shared one throughout Argentina’s tightknit cricketing community, where the sight of Afghanistan’s ever-improving heroes acts as a reminder of what might have been and, indeed, what used to be.
Eight years ago, just nineteen runs stood between Esteban MacDermott’s Argentina side and that of Karim Sadiq, who played his most recent ODI in 2016 against Zimbabwe. The Afghan side that so narrowly claimed victory that day was full of men who, these days, are near-household names.
The exceptional all-rounder Mohammad Nabi – an IPL semi-finalist with the Sunrisers Hyderabad – made seventeen that day before being dismissed by Argentina’s record wicket-taker, the brilliantly named Diego Lord – an amateur dramatist and wrestler in his spare time. The current captain Asghar Stanikzai made just eleven – another victim of Lord’s unerring line and length. Shafiqullah, who hammered 25 against a West Indies bowling attack featuring Sunil Narine, Carlos Brathwaite and Samuel Badree earlier this year, made an enterprising 29 at the top of the Afghan order. The opening bowler Hamid Hassan, whose devastating stump-shattering yorker to Pablo Ferguson proved a pivotal moment in the game, dismissed Jacques Kallis, Mark Boucher and JP Duminy just a year later in a four-over spell.
Even eight years on, MacDermott, Argentina’s captain back in 2009 and now Cricket Argentina’s chief executive, has a clear recollection of how close his troops came to disrupting Afghanistan’s unlikely journey to the game’s pinnacle.
“We fielded first and we produced our best performance of the tournament, restricting them to 160-odd which looked achievable on a slow and low, but even, wicket,” he recalls.
However, despite a strong start with the bat, the South Americans lost regular wickets, falling agonisingly short of a famous victory.
Musiani, whose young side will lead Argentina into a new era next month, wasn’t yet involved in the national setup back in 2009. However, his memory of the moment of the Asian side’s dramatic victory is vivid.
“They had about six or seven supporters all dressed up in suits and waving a thick cloth Afghan flag. I just remember the massive celebration when Diego [Lord] was run out. He was dropped at third man off a massive outside edge from a big swing into the on-side. Then fine-leg came around, picked it up, threw it in and Diego’s bat just bounced up as he dived into his crease as the keeper took all three stumps out of the ground. I just remember the umpire giving it out and these massive celebrations and all the Afghan players just running around.”
With the Afghan side that arrived in Buenos Aires so similar to the group granted Test status in June, Musiani is left asking a simple question that acts as inspiration to his affiliate nation.
“How do you go from struggling against Argentina in 2009 to playing against India in the World T20 World Cup in 2010? It just shows that it is possible.
“You just think, why them? How do you go from being bowled out at Hurlingham to landing an IPL or a CPL contract? How did you do it? What did you do? There’s a limit to the amount of time one person can spend in the nets.”
There is, though, no bitterness from their Argentine opponents; indeed, the sentiment is quite the opposite. “Does it hurt to see where Afghanistan are now? No,” Musiani explains. “They’ve done well. It does make you ask yourself how they’ve done it. They were bowled out for 164 in Buenos Aires.”
“We lost that game by nineteen runs. If we’d beaten them, they wouldn’t have been promoted. They lost to Uganda comfortably in the first game – they were 21-4 chasing 210 against them and reached 200. Hong Kong had the best team – they should have won it. They were very good.
“In the final round of games, Afghanistan were bowled out for seventy by the Cayman Islands and the rain came when the Caymans were 35-2 in reply. The next day, they beat them comfortably in the rearranged game. The rain saved them really.”
Yet, as Afghanistan begin to put the wheels in motion for their bow at the sport’s top table, Argentina prepare to welcome Mexico, Peru and Chile. Eight years ago, nineteen runs separated the sides. The gap now does not bear considering; the finest of margins opening up the widest of gaps.