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