Afghanistan made waves in India last month under head coach Jonathan Trott, nearly making the World Cup semi-finals. They beat top sides England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka on the way and were on the verge of doing so against Australia before Glenn Maxwell played perhaps the most extraordinary innings in the history of ODI cricket. Trott spoke about the World Cup experience and the challenges of coaching Afghanistan during the tournament.
How would you describe your time with Afghanistan so far?
Obviously very new and different. Though I went in not knowing a great deal about the side, I was straightaway impressed with the talent, as also the ambition. Then you have the challenges that you would assume you would normally have with developing nations. It's a blend of the two.
What has impressed you the most about the players? And where would you like to see some changes?
The talent is obviously there, and that's evident when players go and play in franchise leagues. The Afghan players have always been very entertaining and dynamic with the way they play.
But the things that I wanted to change - and I think we could start seeing the changes in the way they approach the batting - are with the method. What is the method behind whatever you're trying to do? Have you thought about it? Have you planned for it? They need to have a bit more of an understanding of what they are trying to do, instead of leaving it to by hook or by crook. [They need to think] let's plan to win, let's plan to be successful, and let's not just rock up and compete. It's that mindset of being ambitious, but also at the same time thinking: how is it going to happen?
We are doing okay so far, though the players could be helped a little bit more off the field with regards to the support they get in the organisation of things. But again, that happens, that comes with developing nations and sides. You've got to remember where Afghanistan cricket comes from, and how long they've been around for compared to the other subcontinent teams.
So I would just like to see them building on the success of this World Cup. Stage by stage getting better and more competitive. I know from now that Afghanistan is not going to be seen as [just another] match, they are going to be seen as a competitor and are never going to be taken lightly. I'm not saying they were taken lightly in the World Cup, but people are now starting to recognise the talent that the side has. And if they start playing together as a unit and have a bit of a plan, we'll see what's attainable.
As the team's coach, what did you learn during the World Cup?
My learnings were about the difference sometimes from when you go inland [in India] to when you are on the coast. It's a bit more humid with regards to the dew, and also how the pitches change in night games. In India, the pitches are very difficult to read and very difficult to get right - certainly they were in the World Cup - and at that time of year especially.
There are so many things that it is dependent on in India, but I think that's what made the World Cup so entertaining and exciting. [It was] not necessarily the fact that if you won the toss, you had a huge advantage. Sometimes, I reckon, it was better if you didn't win it because the pressure was off. You didn't have to make a decision, so the players just got on with it. Sometimes when you make a decision - and, for example, say, you want to bowl first - there's pressure to bowl a team out for maybe 250, or to limit them. Whereas if you didn't win the toss, there was a sort of release of that pressure.
Also, the learning for me was that there is still time for the old-fashioned way of playing. There need to be partnerships, building an innings, and being able to consolidate when things have not gone your way. You've got to be able to play in a number of ways: defend, attack, or rotate. So it was a good World Cup from that point of view. But yeah, just wish we'd been able to beat Australia!
Who do you think are the Afghanistan players to watch out for in the next five years?
Ibrahim Zadran is obviously a fantastic player. The way he played as a batsman, and how he is as a person, means he's a part of the future of the Afghanistan side.
Azmatullah Omarzai, as an allrounder, is also going to be a very good player, I believe. Being promoted to No. 5, and not only taking that responsibility but also being able to excel and bat in tricky situations was fantastic. We saw the way he played in the South Africa game; he should have got a hundred but unfortunately just missed out.
I was also impressed with the way that Ikram Alikhil kept wicket, as well as how he played as a batsman. We had Noor Ahmad come in as well, and it made selection really tricky. We were playing extra spinners, and so Fazalhaq Farooqi had to miss out.
There's a good nucleus of players getting a lot of experience by playing franchise cricket around the world, being coached by the best coaches, and playing with the best players in the world. The side can only get better. So right now it's exciting. Afghanistan is getting those players together and using those experiences, and making sure we compete on the world stage.
What about Afghanistan's fast bowlers, like Naveen-ul-Haq and Farooqi? Is the dependence on spin bowling lessening?
Yeah, it's fantastic when you have got two skilful bowlers in Naveen and Farooqi. They are not express pace, and that's the one thing we perhaps need to work on if we want to compete in all formats and in different conditions, or if we want to go and take on the bigger sides - certainly when the ball doesn't spin or there isn't any assistance for swing.
That's the one thing I have challenged the coaches [about]. I have challenged the high-performance centre too. We need some pace bowling. It's exciting that we have two seamers now. And Azmat is obviously doing that job as well, but we need more seamers because injuries do happen with the amount of cricket the players play.
Talk us through the planning that went into the England game.
I don't think there was any special planning. It was just a case of the players executing the way that they wanted to, and the way we had spoken about.
Against Bangladesh we had a bad game first game. Maybe we put a bit too much pressure on ourselves because it was the first game, and we came unstuck. We then saw a bit of progress against India in Delhi. The fact we had played in Delhi before gave us a bit of insight into how to play [against England].
Gurbaz had got off to an absolute flier. We then had a bit of a wobble where we had a few wickets falling, including a run-out, but then Azmat steadied the ship with Ikram and we got ourselves to a defendable total.
I think it was just the perfect game for us, with the way we bowled with the new ball, and with how the spinners bowled obviously. The win - and the manner in which they won what was only their second victory in a World Cup ever - gave the players a huge amount of confidence.
Your dressing-room whiteboard, where you put down targets for ten-over blocks during the World Cup, became pretty famous. The obvious conclusion is that you helped break the target down, but what went into it in terms of the method?
It's a case of just explaining it to the players, certainly for those who don't have the huge experience of playing under pressure in World Cups, having not played as much ODI cricket as other sides. It's predominantly T20 where they would've played under pressure a lot of the time - certainly in franchise [cricket]. So it helps just to break it down to smaller targets. We had to chase 283 against Pakistan, and when you're starting on nought for nought, that can be quite challenging and seem quite far away. But just by breaking it down slowly, with those little targets, we were able to obtain it and win by eight wickets.
And that's the most amazing feeling. The players were able to put pressure [on the opposition] by just doing the small things really well. We had a great start from Ibrahim Zadran, and Gurbaz also played really well. That, I think, gave us confidence. Then [it was about] our ability not to panic, and not to feel like we had to slog our way to victory. We could actually just occupy the crease.
It's very hard for the opposition to stop our players because of their attacking nature. But sometimes our players have been guilty of perhaps going from gears one and two, skipping three and four, up to five and six straightaway - because of the excitement or perhaps because of a bit of clouded judgement. So we saw what was achievable with little things like the whiteboard, by just chatting about the different stages of the games or getting to drinks and breaking the game down and keeping it really simple.
How do you ensure Afghanistan don't get carried away after beating better teams like England? For instance, Afghanistan lost heavily to New Zealand in the game just after winning against England.
That was because it's such a new and exciting thing for Afghanistan [to beat England]. It's great when you win, but the challenge, like I always say, is to back it up and do it again. If you lose, the great thing about cricket is, you get another opportunity with another game to try and correct what happened in the last game. So the challenge is always to win back to-back games.
If you look back at the New Zealand game, we dropped four simple catches. We dropped two players that went on to get over 50, and also two catches in the powerplay after choosing to bowl first. I feel that decision was the right one. If we had executed it, we could have bowled them out for quite a low score. But New Zealand also played fantastically. [Glenn] Phillips and [Tom] Latham had a really good partnership after being about 115 for 4. We were in a good position there, but then they batted for something like 25 or 26 overs.
And that's what I mean when I say there's still room for old-fashioned cricket; not typically old-fashioned, but different types of cricket - like consolidating. New Zealand did that really well and showed our players just how important partnerships are, and how important it is to have impact players going into the last ten overs. And it's very hard to stop those players.
That's something our players saw when we were batting against India. And then they were able to do that against Pakistan. So that shows to me the players are learning from playing in World Cups like this one, and by playing against better opposition. They're starting to see the traits and the habits of the top players and teams. So the New Zealand game was obviously very disappointing, but I think we learned how ruthless international sport is.
How did you motivate the players after the loss against Australia?
It was a tricky one because New Zealand beat Sri Lanka, which then almost eliminated us. But, you know, we had to play against South Africa, which is a fantastic side, in the amazing stadium in Ahmedabad. So there was really no need for me to motivate them. What I said to them was, "Let's make sure that we try and leave here with five victories, because that sets the standard for the Afghanistan side playing in the next 50-over World Cup." It's always about the process. You're not going to play for Afghanistan forever. I'm not going to coach Afghanistan forever. But what I can make sure is I try and leave it in a better place, and set the standards as high as possible for the next person and players to take over.
Unfortunately, we didn't quite get there. Rassie van der Dussen just played a really good innings, and we didn't bat as well as we could. Azmat didn't have as much support as he could have had. But the Australia game was tough and we saw something very, very special from Maxwell to beat us. If people are going to have to play like that to beat us, then as long as we are doing as much as we can, you can't complain too much. But I still complain a little bit!
What did the ODI Super League mean for Afghanistan in the lead-up to the World Cup?
It's a good case of seeing how you've gone over the course of quite a long period of time. That's how qualification is done, and all sorts of things are taken into account. So every game and series, you're playing against good opposition, every game's important, and there's always something on the line. For me, there are lots of benefits to that. And there's also the case that the major playing nations get to play against sides that perhaps they previously wouldn't play against. Sometimes South Africa, Australia or whoever, played a game in Ireland or in the Netherlands, it was as a sort of warm-up game, but with the Super League there was importance to it.
A year ago we saw England go and play three games [against Netherlands] in Amsterdam. The cricket was not only very important to the side, it also took cricket to the Netherlands, who saw a world-class side playing there. And the players got to test themselves. So whenever we get the opportunity - like how we'll be going to India in January to play T20Is - it's fantastic and really exciting.
So does the absence of the Super League now take some motivation away? Added to it, nowadays ICC tournaments alternate between ODIs and T20Is. And though Afghanistan have qualified for the next Champions Trophy, it's more than a year away.
For me, world tournaments are good because they get everyone's attention onto the game. It gets the world's imagination, really. I think it's good when world cricket or international cricket is catching the headlines. Maybe that's just me being old-fashioned. I like it when there are tournaments and trophies to be won. And it's always good building towards a World Cup, whereas franchises seem to be together for a month and then there's another franchise in another country. And I think the meaning and the feeling behind winning a World Cup or a Champions Trophy brings a lot of happiness and joy to whole nation instead of just to people supporting a region because they're from that city or area. I think when you can bring countries together, that's very powerful.
What are the challenges now for Afghanistan looking to the T20 World Cup next year?
The one thing I would say is, we need to make sure that we start the T20 World Cup having taken the positives from what we learned [during the ODI World Cup], and deal with the pressure and the anticipation. The spotlight has suddenly been thrust on the players, so [it's about] making sure that we don't just rock up because we won four games and did well in that World Cup.
We can't think we're going to be just as successful, or are entitled to win games. We've got to go out there and beat opposition. Oppositions are going to be more ready for us. They're going be more wary, and they're going to expect us to play better cricket. So it's about managing those levels of expectation from the players to make sure that we can go one step further. That's the ambition, or the challenge.
Would you like to continue as Afghanistan coach if you were given the chance?
Yeah, I'd like to, obviously. But I'm still waiting to see if they want me to stay on or not. I'm not sure what the process is or what's going on, but I know there are matches in January against India and UAE. Obviously I've thoroughly enjoyed my time with them so far. It'll be nice to be able to build on the success we had at this World Cup.