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The Most Unlikely Rivalry: Afghanistan v Ireland

Across sport, rivalries can come about for a variety of reasons: geographical proximity, political relations, battles for superiority or even historic contests. Rivalries can also flourish out of more unusual circumstances too.

It’s unlikely that any other team sport pits Ireland against Afghanistan. Afghanistan are not famed for their Hurling team and Ireland by all accounts struggle to get numbers together for Buzkashi. Somehow though these two nations have finally found a mutually played sport - Cricket.

Both sides have more concrete rivalries, Ireland with England and Afghanistan with Pakistan, but this competition does tend to have more even-footing - a contest of equals.

They first came across each other in 2009 at the World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa with the Afghans taking the victory by 22 runs. Little did they know at the time that in less than a decade they’d both be joining the sport’s most elite club - Full Member status.

Both sides dominated the Intercontinental Cup, the ICC’s dearly missed 4 day competition for Associate Nations, and in 2017 the news broke that Afghanistan and Ireland had been elevated to Test status.

Starting on the lowest rung on the Test ladder can be daunting and the jump in class is enormous. The previous newbies, Bangladesh took 5 years and 35 games before registering their first Test win which came against Zimbabwe.

Afghanistan drew first blood on this front winning against the Irish in the first Test meeting between the sides in India but it would take until 2024 for Ireland to return the favour and beat Afghanistan and thereby claiming their own maiden win.

Abu Dhabi was the scene, another great day in Irish cricket that ticked off another item on the bucket list which will be held alongside beating Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day and Kevin O’Brien’s winning century against England in white ball games gone by.

Much of Afghanistan's success has been built around the star power of Rashid Khan

Afghanistan from their side could be considered the stronger of the two since elevation to full membership. They lead their adversaries in both the T20 and ODI rankings currently by a couple of places in each of the boards. Whilst the Irish have just grabbed their first Test win, Afghanistan have notched up 3 since 2019 with wins over Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

Afghanistan have been regulars at ODI and T20 World Cups which cannot be said for Ireland who can describe their white-ball form as patchy.

There are glimmers of hope though for Ireland. This Test win, although isolated, does take them above Afghanistan in the Test rankings.

It’s inescapable though that the Afghans have played the best cricket of both sides since 2019 and there are a number of reasons for that. 

Ireland were granted their promotion to the top level off the back of a golden generation, the likes of Tim Murtagh, Boyd Rankin, Ed Joyce and the O’Brien brothers. Part of the reason for wanting to become more organised was to stop their best players changing allegiances to represent England instead. That generation was ageing by the time they’d made the leap with all those listed above now since retired. The next generation is now coming through with the likes of Harry Tector, Josh Little and Curtis Campher but it has taken a few years to blood a new team.

Afghanistan’s promotion meanwhile came a lot quicker and also coincided with a World Class figure in Rashid Khan coming of age around a young side that matured into the highest level of cricket.

Balbirnie and Stirling are two of the golden generation of Ireland cricket still playing

There’s been differences at home too. Whilst Ireland may have had the advantage of being able to play at home, they’re domestic structure still leaves much to be desired. It was noted that when Ireland headed to Bangladesh in April last year, many of the team hadn’t played red ball cricket since the First Class competition back home had been paused pre-covid. PJ Moor seems to be the most recent relevant experience by representing Mountaineers in Zimbabwe during the winter.

Although star players may not return to Afghanistan as much, there is still professional cricket in all three formats played in the country.

With time and, hopefully, more investment this will level out and we all hope that someday Afghanistan will be able to play in front of a home crowd. This loving competitiveness between the two sides constantly shows signs of improvement on their previous meetings and like siblings growing up together they learn from each other both in their mistakes and their successes.

Their latest battle concluding with Afghanistan taking the white ball series.


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