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Afghanistan dare to dream of World-Cup glory

Afghanistan Under-19 coach Andy Moles addresses his team Afghanistan Cricket Board

Last September Afghanistan's Under-19 team travelled to Bangladesh to play a five-match ODI series. Bangladesh captain Saif Hassan welcomed the visitors by saying: "As we are going to play against Afghans, our target is to whitewash the visitors."

About 10 days later Afghanistan won the series 3-1, embarrassing Saif and Bangladesh.

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Andy Moles is the coach of the Afghanistan U-19 team. Having taken charge in September 2017, the Bangladesh trip was his first assignment. But Moles was well acquainted with Afghanistan cricket. He had been the head coach of the national team at the 2015 World Cup.

It did not take too long for the soft-spoken coach to raise his voice. In the first Youth ODI against Bangladesh, Afghanistan suffered a 145-run drubbing chasing 222. Only two batsmen reached double-digits, with 16 the highest score. Straightaway, Moles identified a major fault line: if Afghanistan were to even compete, he needed to first repair, replenish and reinvigorate his batsmen.

"We hate to be called underdogs. We will be going to the World Cup as a strong contender."

Shafiqullah Stanikzai, the ACB chief executive officer

Moles was blunt in his assessment that evening in the dressing room. "We sat down and discussed exactly the need for people to bat for longer time," he tells ESPNcricinfo from New Zealand, days before the World Cup opener between Afghanistan and Pakistan on Saturday. "We have got a strong bowling side, but our batting was struggling. Too often we were only doing half the work and the batsmen were not completing the job. I told them they need to recognise the fact that they need to bat for a long time and build an innings. Batting 300 balls is a massive thing for the players at this level."

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Pehle hum kehte the chauke maaro, chakke maaro. Lekin ab hum concentrate kar rahe hain single aur double pe." (Earlier we used to talk about hitting fours and sixes every ball. But now we concentrate on taking ones and twos.)

Navid Sayem, Afghanistan's manager since September 2015, was standing beside Moles in Syhlet when the coach addressed the players immediately after the defeat. "He [Moles] was clear. He told them that they are not club players," Sayem says. "They are representing Afghanistan, so they need to play with focus. We have had a bad performance, but that does not mean we cannot come back. But we need the players to focus. If you continue to play like today, then I cannot work with you."

That dressing down must have made an impact. Bangladesh were suffocated to 75 all out in the third ODI - the second game was abandoned due to rain - and Afghanistan registered a five-wicket win. Then, stoutly, they defended a small total of 133 before wrapping the series up with a comfortable 33-run win.

A month later, Afghanistan made history by winning their maiden Youth Asia Cup. They lost only one match in the entire tournament and claimed the title by bowling Pakistan out for a paltry 63 in the final.

Mujeeb Zadran, the mystery spinner, who opens the bowling, was tormentor-in-chief, picking a five-for in the final. He finished as the competition's highest wicket-taker (20 wickets) and was named Player of the Series. Darwish Rasooli, the hard hitting middle-order batsman, held the best strike-rate in the tournament (167.54). Rahmanullah Gurbaz was placed third on the run-getters list.

"Batting 300 balls is a massive thing for the players at U-19 level."

Andy Moles, Afghanistan U-19s' coach

Afghanistan had qualified for the World Cup well before Moles took charge. Mid-2017, they had won the Asia leg of the World Cup Qualifiers, sweeping all six of their league matches. Becoming champions of Asia was another step forward.

Despite their improvements, Moles says the biggest challenge is to keep his players consistent, especially the batsmen. "We have had some success, but within camp we are trying to make sure it is all about consistency. At this age level, when there is pressure, it is about playing with calmness and executing plans.

"We have had a really good five months but it would eventually come down to whether or not we can win the key moments in the game. Thus far, we've managed to do that. But that for me would be the crux of the matter - whether we can continue to keep our nerve, be calm and continue to play good cricket."

As an example, Moles cites the match against Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup, where Afghanistan slipped badly, failing to chase down a simple target of 196 in 42 overs, eventually losing by 61 runs. "That was our only loss, but we are very mindful of how quick things go wrong if we don't stay focused and in the moment and execute plans at every stage of the game."

Afghanistan are in a "really tough group" at the World Cup, Moles says, bunched alongside Pakistan, Ireland and Sri Lanka. He says Afghanistan need to respect their opposition and hope to win at least two of their three matches in the group stages and then qualify for the Super League.

Going from a dry, arid country like Afghanistan to the much colder, windier conditions of New Zealand could pose a challenge to the players. Another hurdle is playing on grassy pitches where the ball skids and seams in contrast to those at home which are mostly spin-friendly. To get acclimatised, Moles took the team to New Zealand about three weeks in advance, setting up base in Napier.

"We have very good spin-bowling attack," Moles says. "They are all wristspinners. At this level, batsmen prefer the ball coming onto the bat, so taking the pace off the ball, hopefully, would be the strength for us."

Moles has made it clear he will not accept a work ethic that is below par or even average, the manager Sayem says. "He wants the player to keep learning at all times. He wants players to perform every match. He does not bother about what the player did in the past." He was not shy about removing senior players like Pervez Malikzai, Naveed Obaid and Shamshur Rahman when it felt like they had taken their place for granted.

Afghanistan have a lot of free-spirited batsmen but Moles wants someone who can "add some spine or glue" to the batting order. Ikram Ali Khil, the wicketkeeper, was promoted from the lower order to be that adhesive. Ali Khil scored a century in the Asia Cup final and will once again be anchor at the World Cup.

"It is very easy for me to hit a six."

Darwish Rasooli, Afghanistan's new No. 5

Moles, Sayem says, is a devoted coach, who has been working hard on the mental aspect of the players. He has painstakingly reminded the batsmen in every training session over the past months about patience. "The team needs people to bat for time, not try and score quick, T20-type innings. We have got Darwish [Rasooli], a very, very talented young player. He needs to bat for at least 100 balls, not try and bat for 20 or 30 balls, hitting boundaries. It is about getting the risk and reward element suitably balanced. In the nets, we talk a lot about not looking to force the issue."

Rasooli is one of the four players to feature in their second World Cup. He was a top-order batsman in the previous edition, but Moles has pushed him down this time.

Rasooli says Moles has given him a plan where he rotates the strike and uses the loose balls to hit the big shots. He holds the domestic record for scoring a 34-ball century last year but Moles has asked him to curb his game until the appropriate time. "It is very easy for me to hit a six," Rasooli says, in broken Hindi, and laughs. "My game plan is to be quiet till the last six overs and then I can target the big hits to boost our total. I am now learning that steadily."

The other lesson Rasooli and his team-mates are learning is that "even if we win, in case we have done some mistakes, our coach makes sure we address it immediately and not repeat it the next time".

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Mujeeb Zadran watched the previous U-19 World Cup, in Bangladesh, from his home in Khost, eastern Afghanistan. He was 14 years old. Watching players such as Rashid Khan, the star legspinner, Mujeeb dreamed of playing the tournament one day. Now, he is part of a select band of players who have earned the senior national cap before they play the Youth World Cup, following in Rashid's footsteps.

Mujeeb is the first international men's cricketer born in the 21st century. Only 16, he already has a few records to his name. In the Bangladesh series, he picked up 18 wickets. No one has done better in a bilateral Youth ODI series. He was the top wicket-taker in the Asia Cup. And on his international debut, against Ireland in December, he was adjudged Player of the Match.

It is no surprise the ICC has nominated Mujeeb as one to watch. "I am very happy that people think I am one of the best players. I have no pressure at all. In fact, the pressure will be all on the opposition," he says in Pashtun.

Asked about his bowling strengths, Mujeeb is initially coy. He doesn't understand the query. But pushed, and helped by Rasooli and Sayem, he says all his variations help him dominate the batsman. "I bowl the offbreak, legbreak, googly, carrom ball. All this only means the batsman faces a lot of difficulty reading me."

"I have no pressure at all. In fact, the pressure will be all on the opposition."

Mujeeb Zadran, the mystery spinner

Rashid had spoken to Mujeeb about making sure he added variety to his bowling. "I have the experience of bowling with the new ball. There are other spinners, too, in our team. But our captain believes in me and that helps me stay confident and be the strike bowler."

And Moles says he will be their go-to bowler in the tournament. "He likes the seam being hard. He bowls carom balls, he can bowl the legbreak and googlies, he skids the ball with the new ball. He is an attacking bowler. And we need him to take wickets and not bowl dot balls. The key to success is we need to take wickets regularly."

Assisting Mujeeb would be legspinner Qais Ahmad and left-arm wristspinner Zahir Khan, who has also played for the Afghanistan senior team.

Zahir is turning up for his second U-19 World Cup and he began the previous one with a five-for. "We have played and won in the practice games in the Napier," he says. "We feel, inshallah, we will put our name on this World Cup. We have been working hard and want to carry this to the tournament.

"Our strength is we do not let go of the match till the end. Our fielding is really good. Even in the practice match against Bangladesh, when they had started well, we did not let go of the match. Every player put in a spirited fight. We do not think [the game is lost] if we are playing a bigger, better opponent or there is a big partnership developing. We just collectively think of getting a wicket and then building the momentum."

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The Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) is optimistic about the U-19s doing well at the World Cup. The past year was a watershed moment for them as a cricketing nation, finally earning Full Membership status in the ICC. The ACB has already put together a professional development cycle for the Under-19 players, who, based on their progress, are moved on to the A team and Emerging squads.

"Each cycle of the Under-19 World Cup has given us two to three young players who graduate to the national side, which is good mixture of youth and experience," Shafifullah Stanikzai, the ACB chief executive officer, says.

Stanikzai is absolutely bullish. "We hate to be called underdogs. We will be going to the World Cup as a strong contender even if we are playing in foreign conditions."

Moles, however, has other priorities. He wants build a culture of hard work and remains focused on developing the mental aspect of the players' game. "We have come to win it, yes, but we are not thinking it will be easy. We don't see ourselves as favourites. What we need to do is to compete in every game and see where that takes us."

Mujeeb is confident. "We have a lot of faith in ourselves and our team. We have worked really hard for this World Cup. Definitely we can win it."