Now for a truly inspiring cricket story
If you want to read a cricket book with a difference, get hold of The Corridor of Uncertainty by Nihar Suthar, an American author of Indian extraction.
It’s the story of Afghanistan cricket. Despite the Taliban, deaths, bombs and poverty, and even though Osama bin Laden is mentioned more than Bradman, it’s an uplifting story.
There was actually cricket played in Afghanistan in the 1800s by British soldiers in Kabul, the capital. But the game didn’t catch on, not like in neighbouring Pakistan.
Suthar picks up the story in the mid-1990s, in a desolate Afghan refugee camp in Kacha Garhi in Peshawar, a tough city in northern Pakistan, near the infamous Khyber Pass.
A few boys, Taj, Karim and Raees, teenagers or younger, decided they wanted to be cricketers. They planned to form the Afghanistan Cricket Board, field a national team and win the World Cup.
They’d been inspired by crackly television images of Pakistan winning the 1992 World Cup, when they beat New Zealand and England in the semifinal and final.
Cricket in New Zealand involves sponsorship, vast television coverage, the latest equipment, good grounds, expensive coaching and development programmes, and various layers of representative cricket, from 10-year-olds to test players.
What the refugees in Kacha Garhi faced was indeed a world away.
Their parents forbade them to play – they were required to work all day for a pittance to help sustain their families.
But they snuck around and persevered. They fashioned a bat from tree bark and found an old tennis ball.
Amazingly they improved enough to be able to play in a league competition in Peshawar, again without their parents’ knowledge.
They were joined by a few others, notably Allah Dad.
Suthar’s book traces Afghanistan cricket’s growth from there – petty rivalries among some of the young cricket visionaries, the danger they faced taking their game back home, and negotiations with the Afghanistan Olympic Committee and then the Taliban, which initially banned cricket.
The cricketers eventually received a dispensation to play, but only if they wore full Afghan attire, grew their beards out and prayed five times a day.
They wanted to hold trials, but couldn’t find a suitable venue – the stadium in Kabul was used for weekly public floggings, amputations and other punishment.
Amazingly, cricket gradually took hold and the tiny pool of cricketers grew.
Afghanistan travelled to Pakistan in 2001 for their first international matches and were playing there while American planes dropped bombs on their homes.
Still they battled on. Then they began to have success, winning the ICC division 5 in Jersey, division 4 in Tanzania, division 3 in Buenos Aires. They narrowly missed qualifying for the 2011 World Cup, but made it for 2015, amid joyous scenes at home.
In that World Cup last year, they lost heavily to the big guns, but beat Scotland in Dunedin by one wicket – 211-9 against 210. Their final pair put on 19 to win it.
It was one of the games of the tournament and, when you understand the background, was really a miracle.
I’ve read cricket books from WGGrace to Sachin Tendulkar, but nothing has been more inspiring than Suthar’s The Corridor of Uncertainty, and the story of how cricket helped mend a torn nation.
Afghanistan players celebrate their historic World Cup win over Scotland in Dunedin last year.