Two countries in the last one week made news in the sports pages – Afghanistan and Serbia.

I had blogged about the Afghan cricket team earlier – 1, 2, 3 – and I need to blog again. My friend Sanjeev , a fellow Afghan cricket fan, sent me a mail after Afghanistan beat Scotland in the Intercontinental Cup final. He says and I quote:

War-ridden Afghanistan, newbies to the game of cricket, won the Finals of the ICC Intercontinental Cup beating Scotland by 7 wickets! (I don’t remember the last time a cricket team had been this inspiring and for whom I had genuinely rejoiced like this!)

TOTAL domination..won every single match (including big wins against Kenya and Scotland) other than the first one which they drew! Chasing 370 to win, they were 211/4 in that match…so could ahve won that one too if it was a 5 day match and not a 4-day match!

The record is impressive.

Match 1: v Zimbabwe at Mutare (Zim) – match drawn

Match 2: v Netherlands at Amstelveen (Ned) – won by 1 wicket. A low scoring game, chased 209 in the fourth innings

Match 3: v Ireland at Dambulla (Sri Lanka) – won by 7 wickets.  Scored 474 in the first innings in response to the Irish first innings of 405. Bowled out the Irish for 202 in the second innings leaving them an easy target of 137.

Match 4: v Canada at Sharjah (UAE) – won by 6 wickets. Canada scored 566 in the first innings and Afghanistan scored just 264. Canada did not enforce the follow on and batted till 191/4 before declaring. Set a mammoth fourth innings target of 494, the Afghans achieved that losing just 4 wickets.

Match 5: v Scotland at Ayr (Scot) – won by 229 runs. The Afghans batted first this time scoring 435. They bowled out Scotland for 139. No follow on, Afghans piled on the pressure with 249/5 declared setting a fourth innings target of 545. Scotland were bowled out for 316.

Match 6: v Kenya at Nairobi (Ken) – won by 167 runs. The scoreline was very similar to the match against Scotland. The Afghans scoring 464 in the first innings. The Kenyans had a fourth innings target of 511 but were bowled out for 344.

6 matches, 5 wins, 1 draw. That’s their record. And all the six teams have featured in the ODI world cups before. They have players who play in the English county circuit or in South Africa. The two “home” matches were played in UAE and Sri Lanka. But, unlike their neighbour who continues to whine about why teams do not come there, the Afghans made no noise about not being able to play at home i.e. Afghanistan. In fact, it turns out to be a better deal because they get access to high class training facilities in UAE or Sri Lanka. Afghanistan may be a security nightmare but even infrastructure wise, they do not have the capability to host world standard international matches.

The final was against Scotland and obviously they were the favourites. It was a tough match at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium. The Scots scored 212 thanks largely to a century by McCallum (there were just two other batsmen who reached double figures). Hamid Hassan, easily the best bowler among the Associate countries, took 5 wickets. The Afghan batting could not hold up and were dismissed for 171. Scotland could have taken the match here but in the second innings, the Afghan bowling was unplayable with Hassan, Ashraf and Shenwari taking 3 wickets each and the Scots were bundled out for 82. Chasing 137, the Afghan second innings was more comfortable and they won by 7 wickets.

Not surprisingly, Afghans top the batting and bowling charts – Mohd Shahzad and Nowroze Mangal (the captain) top the batsmen with 802 and 593 runs respectively while Hamid Hassan with 43 wickets tops the bowlers.

After all this, one must truly stand up and applaud this team. As Hassan writes in his blog before the final started:

What a year it has been for Afghanistan cricket! Winning the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier in Dubai in February was a moment I will never forget; having the chance to play India and South Africa at the ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean was amazing and beating Pakistan at the Asian Games and securing a silver medal was one of the greatest moments of my career.

On to Serbia and the Davis Cup. The Davis Cup has always been looked upon as a poor cousin to the professional tennis tour. But for many countries, it is as big as it can get. The brand of tennis that is displayed here is definitely different from the Grand Slams but not in terms of quality. The different flavour that Davis Cup tennis gives is expressed in Djokovic’s words below:

“I would put everything behind me that I have achieved in 2010 just for this win. Definitely the best feeling that we have experienced on a tennis court, ever.”

The complex Balkan politics, war, civil strife etc meant a lot of new nations like Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, etc enter the sports arena with the task of building new teams even as their fledgling nations grow. Serbia had one big champion – Novak Djokovic. World No 3 who is one of the few tennis players to have won a Grand Slam in the Federer – Nadal era.

What does this mean to a nation? One had to see the matches played at the Beograzia Arena in Belgrade. The French captain Guy Forget called them “imbeciles”.

People may diss about the Davis Cup and probably justified too but the tournament like all inter-nation tournaments like the football World Cup has a different meaning – else why would people who never follow any sport chase their countrymen when they participate in the Asian Games or the Olympic Games?

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