Afghanistan created history by qualifying for the Cricket World Cup in 2015. They exited the competition after the group stage, winning one game, but have gone from strength to strength in the last four years. They won the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup Qualifier last year and ensured a spot in the multi-nation tournament for the second consecutive time.
This time, they are aiming at causing a few upsets. Shahidi, echoing his captain's recent comments to ICC, insisted they are no longer content with just participating and are armed with higher ambition. "Now, it’s not like it was before. In 2015, people said it’s a proud moment that Afghanistan are a part of the World Cup," he told the ICC. "It’s not the time for that. Now, it’s time to say this to everyone else: ‘Wake up, Afghanistan are coming!’"
Afghanistan go into the tournament with an arsenal of experienced cricketers, promising youngsters, world-class spinners and a pace battery on the rise. These many strengths make them one of the dark horses in the competition.
Their spin attack remains their ace ahead of the tournament – the trio of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman claimed 16 wickets between them in the recently concluded one-day international series against Ireland. Zahir Khan, who made his ODI debut in the final game, took two wickets.
"We could beat just one team, Scotland, in the 2015 World Cup," Shahzad pointed out. "This time we are better prepared with spinners like Mujeeb, Rashid, Nabi and Zahir Khan in our ranks. We are trying our best to perform better in the 2019 World Cup and beat four-five teams in the competition."
We are trying our best to perform better in the 2019 World Cup and beat four-five teams in the competition
But it's not just the spinners. Seamers such as Shapoor Zadran, Fareed Malik, Sayed Shirzad and Aftab Alam add guile to their line-up. Shahidi believes that the influx of pacers has not only enhanced their threat but also helped the batsmen get attuned to "quality" seam-bowling.
"We have good seam bowlers who are clocking 140-plus deliveries. We play them in the nets and we’re used to facing quality seam-bowling," he explained.
While Afghanistan seem splendid in Asian conditions, their lack of experience in English conditions might pose a challenge in the World Cup. Shahidi, however, was not too concerned. "The conditions will be tricky, but many [Afghanistan] players have been to England before and know how to play there. Our team is going to Scotland and Ireland before the World Cup and it will be good preparation for us. We are also going to England early."
With a heady mix of young and experienced talent brimming with self-confidence, Afghanistan look well and truly ready to take their next big step in World Cup cricket. This team has taken giant leaps since playing in Division Five back in 2008, and look ready to pack a punch or two this year.
Shahidi, though, knows it won't be easy. "The World Cup is a couple of months away and we have to work hard to shine at that level," he admitted. "We haven’t set any specific goals, but we will try our best. We want to play good cricket and win each and every game."
Afghanistan will take on Australia in Bristol on 1 June to kick off their World Cup 2019 campaign.