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Tragedy spurs Afghanistan to unprecedented heights

Naveen-ul-Haq, the Afghanistan Under-19 captain, has dedicated the team’s maiden entry into the World Cup semi-finals to the victims of the attacks that have rocked Jalalabad and Kabul over the last two days. The entire team wore black armbands to mourn those who lost their lives during the quarter-final against hosts New Zealand in Christchurch on Thursday.

The targets of the attacks were the UNICEF’s Save the Children office in Jalalabad on Wednesday and the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on Thursday. “It was very sad for us to hear of the attacks on children in Jalalabad and at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul,” Naveen said. “We wore black armbands to show our support [for the grieving families and friends of the victims].”

Khaliq Dad Noori, the assistant coach, was among the support staff who was witness to the team’s sombre mood as it reached the ground. “A lot of these boys were affected by social-media images of kids fleeing after being attacked and were very down,” he told ESPNcricinfo. “We had to really lift the boys, but once they got to the ground, they were motivated when they saw the country’s flags and fans who had turned up to cheer for them.”

Afghanistan’s matches have been particularly well attended all tournament. The Afghan community in New Zealand has warmed up to the team and has been travelling with them, around the country. In Whangarei, 200 fans stormed the field in elation after Afghanistan secured victory over Pakistan in the tournament-opener. Since then, the following has only increased.

In Christchurch too, the chants and support proved to be “motivating and not pressurising” for Naveen. “There’s a lot of passion for the game among the Afghans,” he said. “They travel around quite a lot. I know fans who have come from Sydney, some people have come from Auckland. This shows their passion and support to the team. We are not feeling any extra responsibility. It’s just that they are backing us, and we are enjoying it and not carrying any burden of that.”

Naveen spoke with a maturity that belied his age, a young captain thinking of events in his country during possibly one of the biggest moments of his life. Equally mature was his counter at suggestions of his side “upsetting the hosts”. It reflected the confidence within the team as it sets sights on Australia in the semi-final.

“Someone told me, ‘as underdogs you don’t have anything to lose’. I said. ‘we are not underdogs. We are Full Members, we are Asia Cup [Under-19] champions’. We are proving ourselves at the World Cup now. It’s not like we are beating anyone by chance. Soon they won’t call us underdogs or dark horses.”

One of the major reasons for the increase in self-confidence, according to Naveen, was the country’s promotion to Full Membership of the ICC. “As professional cricketers, we dream of playing Test cricket. That has really motivated the group,” he said. “The passion in our country towards cricket boosts our confidence. This has given us even more motivation to play and enjoy the game.”

Ahead of the match, Dad Noori connected the team to Rashid Khan, the senior national team’s star legspinner, who asked to speak to the Under-19 boys to wish them luck. It turned out to be a mood-changer as the players reached the venue. “He was on the phone with the boys, asking them to not feel the pressure and take this as another game and play to enjoy it,” Dad Noori said. “They felt motivated after that. You could see how much that meant to them.”

Once on the field, the off-field issues were put aside. Among three players who were rested for the previous game was Azmatullah Omarzai, who proved to be the gamechanger. Coming in at No. 7, he smashed a 23-ball 66 as Afghanistan smashed 116 off their last 10 overs to finish with 309. This was particularly astonishing considering Omarzai only started playing serious cricket in 2015. This was particularly pleasing for Naveen, as it gave the team a lift going into the second innings. Afghanistan proceeded to bowl New Zealand out for 107.

At the forefront of Afghanistan’s stellar bowling show was mystery spinner Mujeeb Zadran. All of 16, he’s already been compared to Rashid Khan and is seen as a future prospect who has already featured in the Bangladesh Premier League and Pakistan Super League.

Mujeeb’s four-wicket haul left New Zealand’s chase in tatters. Once the top three fell inside the first six overs, New Zealand’s middle order, which hasn’t had much batting time in this tournament, stood exposed. “This is what we planned for in the morning: win toss, bat first and defend with our spinners.” Naveen said. “This was a used pitch, so we knew it will grip and turn, So we played with three spinners. We saw in the previous match there was some break for them, so we were confident of defending the total.

“I think preparation going into the game helped. The loss to Ireland was a wake-up call. It was a good game to lose, it allowed us to refocus and get back. Happy with the way we played. We will take one day off and then prepare for Australia.”

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