Cricket Dreams

Afghan crick­eters are raw, gritty and am­bi­tious. Has Afghanistan’s cricket dream just be­gun?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Maria Ka­mal

The me­te­oric rise of Afghanistan’s 11 in the Cricket World Cup has all the el­e­ments of pow­er­ful sto­ry­telling; ab­surd lev­els of en­durance in the face of for­mi­da­ble ob­sta­cles, un­bri­dled pas­sion, raw tal­ent, un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment, tall as­pi­ra­tions and a spirit that knows no fail­ure. The team’s inspiring, at times sur­real, jour­ney to cricket’s most pres­ti­gious com­pe­ti­tion has been doc­u­mented by in­ter­na­tional writ­ers, jour­nal­ists and doc­u­men­tary film-mak­ers who have been moved by their story.

You would think all the hype cre­ated by Afghanistan’s first World Cup ap­pear­ance would have fallen flat once the in­fant team suc­cumbed to the less ide­al­is­tic re­al­i­ties of in­ter­na­tional cricket, un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously ex­it­ing the com­pe­ti­tion on its de­feat at Eng­land’s hands. Not so. Of the six matches that Afghanistan played in the Cricket World Cup, it won just one, against Scot­land, on Fe­bru­ary 26. Not both­ered about the bleak score­card, Afghans are ec­static at their coun­try’s first win in the World Cup. As far as sup­port­ers are con­sid­ered, the team may as well have brought back the cov­eted tro­phy. One has to ap­pre­ci­ate just how far and how fast Afghan cricket has come to put this victory and its ju­bi­lant re­cep­tion in their home coun­try in per­spec­tive.

In his book, Out of the Ashes, Tim Al­bone, traces the hum­ble be­gin­nings of Afghanistan’s re­lent-less cricket dream to the Kacha Garhi refugee camp in Pak­istan against a back­drop of war and dev­as­ta­tion.

Un­like In­dia and Pak­istan, where cricket has a longer, more es­tab­lished his­tory, the sport is rel­a­tively new

in Afghanistan. It is a byprod­uct of the Soviet in­va­sion of Afghanistan, which pushed Afghans to seek refuge in north­ern Pak­istan where they first en­coun­tered the cricket ma­nia. The young refugees took to the sport and brought it back to their home­land with them. In an oth­er­wise tense geopo­lit­i­cal re­la­tion­ship, cricket ma­nia is that one thing that has trav­eled seam­lessly from Pak­istan to Afghanistan, unit­ing peo­ple in both lands and be­com­ing a shared in­ter­est.

Many of Afghanistan’s top 11 and those who pi­o­neered pro­fes­sional cricket in that coun­try dis-cov­ered the sport dur­ing their years in refugee camps in Pak­istan. As a child, open­ing bats­man Karim Sadiq first learnt to play cricket in the Kacha Garhi camp in Pak­istan. Two of the team’s star play­ers, its fast bowlers Hamid Has­san and Shapoor Zad­ran, also grew up as refugees in Pe­shawar. As did Mo­ham­mad Nabi, the team’s cap­tain.

For­mer In­dian cap­tain and a lead­ing author­ity on cricket, Su­nil Gavaskar, was all praise for the team.

“They come across as nat­u­ral crick­eters, like the play­ers of the past West Indies team or a few play­ers from Pak­istan. They seem to have the ball sense, their tim­ing of the bat swing and de­liv­ery stride of the bowler. It all seems to come nat­u­rally to them," Gavaskar said.

The team’s coach, Andy Moles, is English. He took the job against his fam­ily’s wishes and rec­og­nizes the dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances in which the Afghan team has emerged.

“I spoke to one of the play­ers who was late to our last camp about a month ago. I asked him the rea­son why and he turned around and told me that he had to go to the fu­neral of his cousin, who was shot dead by a drone,” he says.

“Other play­ers have had mem­bers of their fam­ily kid­napped for ran­som. Th­ese guys cer­tainly haven't had it easy," Moles told The In­de­pen­dent.

Ac­cord­ing to Al­bone’s ac­count, Taj Ma­lik Alam, for­mer Afghan cricket coach, founder of the Afghan Cricket Club com­pris­ing solely of Afghan refugees, also known as ‘the fa­ther of Afghan cricket,’ played a piv­otal role in build­ing the coun­try’s cricket team. From play­ing with taped ten­nis balls and scrap­ing to­gether their win­nings from each game to in­vest fur­ther in equip­ment, the Afghan Cricket Club emerged as an as­so­ci­a­tion of in­no­va­tive young men who chased af­ter a dream that is shared by youth across the sub­con­ti­nent; it is a dream for glory that in­volves bats, balls and two armies of 11 fac­ing off in makeshift cricket fields across the re­gion.

It was while living in ex­ile in Pak­istan that twelve-year-old Alam en­coun­tered the cricket fer­vor that en­veloped its pop­u­la­tion, ex­plains Al­bone. Alam and the oth­ers grew ob­sessed with the sport, aban­don­ing other pur­suits, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion, for the sport.

The odds against Afghanistan’s cricket dream were many and var­i­ous; poor in­fra­struc­ture, poverty, dis­place­ment, in­sta­bil­ity and tur­moil. How­ever, his­tory bears wit­ness that Afghanistan is noth­ing if not a land of bound­less grit, har­bor­ing a peo­ple whose re­silience is iconic.

Ma­lik sees cricket as the so­lu­tion to his coun­try’s prob­lems.

“There are a lot of prob­lems in the world to­day. Ev­ery­where there is con­flict, fight­ing and in­jus­tices. The so­lu­tion to all the prob­lems is… cricket,” says Ma­lik in the 2010 doc­u­men­tary Out of the Ashes.

The CEO of the Afghan cricket board Noor Mo­ham­mad Mu­rad echoes a sen­ti­ment that is oft-heard in the sub­con­ti­nent: “Cricket is not only a sport in Afghanistan, it's more im­por­tant than that.”

In­deed it is. It is an af­fir­ma­tion of Afghan as­pi­ra­tions and in­de­fati­ga­bil­ity.

Afghanistan’s Cricket World Cup de­but has en­deared the coun­try’s team to fans of the sport ev­ery­where. Per­haps this is be­cause Afghan cricket is rem­i­nis­cent of the orig­i­nal, un­tar­nished ap­peal that cap­ti­vated mil­lions of ar­dent fans in the South Asian re­gion in the first place. Ear­lier, dis­cus­sions about cricket were dom­i­nated by talk of ‘match­fix­ing’ and ‘spot-fix­ing’. Long be­fore IPL, celebrity endorsements, cor­po­rate spon­sor­ships and con­tro­ver­sies about crick­eters’ per­sonal and pro­fes­sional lives dom­i­nated air time. Afghan cricket echoes the very best — that part which is raw pas­sion, hum­ble be­gin­nings and im­pos­si­ble dreams.

Rec­og­niz­ing that the team brings some­thing dis­tinc­tive to the world stage, Gavaskar warned against over­think­ing things lest they lose their essence.

“They are nat­u­rally tal­ented and that is why some­times you need to leave them on their own. It is im­por­tant that they don't get in­volved in too many tech­ni­cal­i­ties of the game,” he said.

Their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the World Cup and victory against Scot­land are mile­stones for Afghani-stan. But Afghanistan’s cricket dream has only just be­gun.

Afghan cricket echoes the very best — that part which is raw pas­sion, hum­ble be­gin­nings and im­pos­si­ble dreams.

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