Dubai: Cricketers are the pride of Afghanistan, their ambassadors of peace. From refugee camps to global spotlight, the journey of Afghan cricket is the stuff of fairytales. Mostly growing up in refugee camps and amid the whistle of missiles or the thunder of bombs, the brave boys of Afghanistan have battled all odds to unify a nation perpetually held ransom by war and terror. Gulf News examines why theirs is the ultimate story of triumph in the face of adversity.
‘There’s only cricket in Afghanistan’
By Shyam A. Krishna, Opinion Editor
Dubai: “In Afghanistan, there’s nothing. There’s only cricket in Afghanistan,” shouted an Afghan supporter standing outside the Rose Bowl in Southampton.
That was on June 22. Afghanistan were playing India in the Cricket World Cup 2019. A legion of Indian supporters had descended on the Hampshire cricket stadium. This Afghan was unfazed. Wearing a headgear in Afghan colours, he carried a speaker, and a mic was taped to his cheek. He kept shouting slogans in Pashto, cheering the Afghanistan team. A video clip of his show of support was widely shared on Twitter.
He was one of the hundreds who came to support Afghanistan. One of the estimated 76,000 Afghan nationals living in the United Kingdom. Large numbers continued to show up at venues in England and Wales, dressed in their team’s colours, waving the national flag and cheering every run and wicket. The results didn’t matter. They were proud of their national team. After all, they are among the top 10 teams in the world.
Afghanistan are not newbies. This is their second appearance at the World Cup. They are yet to win a game. There have been some heavy defeats along the way. Some of them could be attributed to inexperience. Like the one against Sri Lanka, where they went toe to toe before wilting.
The India game was their best. Afghanistan came within six balls of defeating the world’s second-ranked team and one of the favourites to win the cup. That was agonisingly close. It was a performance that won plaudits from Indians as well. They did even better against Pakistan, coming within two balls of victory. But some poor captaincy robbed them of victory.
Afghanistan’s rise is a cricketing fairytale. How can cricket thrive in a country torn asunder by incessant wars and internecine conflicts? There’s no peace in Afghanistan. There have been talks, but that hasn’t stemmed the tide of violence. Around 2,300 casualties from militant attacks in May alone is a grim reminder of the hostilities in the country.
“Sport is the only thing that brings peace to the country,” Rashid Khan told Britain’s The Daily Telegraph recently. Khan is perhaps the best-known cricketer from Afghanistan. The 20-year-old is the third best bowler in the world. He learned to bowl leg-spin in the refugee camps of Peshawar, a city in Pakistan. Khan’s family was among the more than 3 million people who fled across the border when Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan in 1979.
Why is Afghanistan in the conflict zone?
Afghanistan is breathtakingly beautiful with rugged mountainous terrain shaped by harsh weather. The plains are vast and fertile. Agriculture used to account for 50 per cent of the GDP. There were orchards of oranges and pomegranates. Sugarcane, beetroot, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and wool used to be among the exports. That was before severe drought and Soviet mines crippled the farms. Now its best-known produce is opium.
Think Afghanistan, and images of war and terror spring to mind. Why is it? Religious, ethnic and tribal divisions have repeatedly fractured the country. Warring factions and geopolitical interests make for a lethal mix.
A peek into history reveals that the land was conquered by Darius I of Babylonia in 500 BC, and Alexander the Great of Macedonia in 329 BC, and many others. Its strategic location always attracted foreign interests. Extending from Hindu Kush mountain range in the northeast to the Registan Desert in the southwest, Afghanistan is at the gateway of Asia and Europe. A nodal point between India, East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, the country has suffered foreign domination for extended periods.
In his book ‘Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History’, Thomas Barfield says: “Geography may not be destiny but it has set the course of Afghan history for millennia as the gateway for invaders spilling out of Iran or central Asia and into India: Cyrus the Great, Alexander the Great, Mahmud of Ghazni, Ghinggis [Genghis] Khan, Tamerlane, and Babur, to mention some of the most illustrious examples. During this period, Afghanistan was part of many different empires ruled by outsiders and the centre of a couple of its own.”
The Indian, Persian, Arabic, Mongolian and Chinese conquests didn’t stop trade and commerce. It flourished along the vast network of routes that came to be known as the Silk Road.
The first cricket game in Kabul
Modern Afghanistan evolved in 1747, and its recent history is no less violent. In the 19th Century, Britain took an interest in Afghanistan to protect British India from Russia’s expansionist ambitions. The tussle for influence between the two major powers came to be known as the Great Game, a term borrowed from Rudyard Kipling. In 1838, 1878 and 1919, Britain’s attempts to gain control of Afghanistan were defeated by the tribal warriors. The first cricket match in Kabul was played by British troops during one of the military adventures in 1839.
Had Britain had succeeded in the Anglo-Afghan wars, cricket may have taken root in the country much earlier. Afghanistan is the only country at the World Cup that has not been colonised by the British. Cricket, invented by the British, is indeed one of the enduring legacies in its former colonies. And Afghanistan was never a fully integrated British colony, although it was yoked with a protected state status. So cricket took a circuitous route to reach the landlocked country.
After independence in 1919, Afghanistan passed through a tumultuous period. Modernisation efforts, socio-economic reforms that irked tribal elders, women at workplaces, shortlived experiments with democracy, a dalliance with communism, civil wars, all followed. The Soviet invasion and the rise of the Taliban helped plant Al Qaida terror in the country. The 9/11 attacks brought US forces to Afghan soil to wage its longest war in history ¬– a war that’s now in its 18th year.
The rise of the Afghan cricket team
Afghanistan now is a country in ruins. Persistent drought has ravaged the farms, and poverty stalks ordinary Afghans. Infrastructure is mostly pathetic, except in the cities. Warlords and militants have kept a civil war simmering. The economy is heavily dependent on international assistance and remittance from expatriates.
Amid the gloom, cricket sprouted after it was transplanted from the refugee camps of Peshawar to the dusty fields of Kabul. The Afghan Cricket Federation – now called the Afghanistan Cricket Board – was established in 1995. But a national team could be formed only in 2000 after the Taliban lifted its ban on cricket. The game blossomed in the shadow of the gun.
Impressive displays in the ICC World Cricket League Division matches – the lowest rung of competition for national teams – won the team funding from Afghanistan, the British government and the Asian Cricket Council. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India too chipped in. The Indian cricket board helped build stadiums in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan, besides providing training facilities at Greater Noida and Dehradun in India.
After 18 years of international cricket, Afghanistan secured Test status in June 2017. The country is now the 12th Test cricket-playing full member, and is ranked seventh in the T20 format and 10th in ODI.
A mosaic of ethnic groups
Afghanistan is a mosaic of ethnic groups. The Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaqs and other smaller groups make the 30 million population. Cricket has become the glue that binds these groups, allowing them to take pride in their country. Players like Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb ur Rahman have become celebrities. Afghan singing sensation Aryana Sayeed is an avid supporter.
Even political groups are cashing on the team’s popularity. The Taliban and other ethnic groups have voiced their backing. President Ashraf Ghani called on the players when they clashed with England at Old Trafford on June 18. Cricketers are indeed the pride of Afghanistan.
From refugee camps to the global spotlight, the Afghan cricket journey has been incredible. A triumph in the face of adversity.
For the real heroes of Afghanistan, cricket is a prayer for peace
By Chiranjib Sengupta, Assistant Editor
Dubai: They come from all walks of life, their imagination and motivation fired up in a myriad ways.
One is inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Another by Shahid Afridi.
One is a true Afghan soldier – having batted at almost all positions from opener to number nine, having bowled his medium pace and having not bowled at all, and then being handed the team captaincy six weeks before the World Cup.
Another is still a teenager whose spin wizardry has bowled over the world’s best batsmen.
And when they salute the national anthem at the beginning of every match this World Cup, the crowd expects an arduous battle, a great game and perhaps a shock victory for the brave boys from Afghanistan.
Why is it so?
Here are five tales of courage, valour and determination against the odds. They will tell you why.
The youngest and the fastest cricketer to spin his way to 100 wickets, Rashid Khan started his journey with a slingshot.
The streets of Bati Kot town in Nangarhar are still full of little Roshi’s exploits with the slingshot. Practically uncoached all his life, it’s been a long journey from those streets to become the world's best T20 bowler and a sensation in one-day internationals. Khan has also played a major role in changing the global perception of Afghanistan as a hub of terror and drug cartels. His is a country that now is among the strongest fighters in world cricket.
Khan’s family is among the fortunate few of the vast refugee diaspora of Afghanistan. For they could afford to rent their own house in Peshawar when they migrated – and that made a world of difference to Khan. His early years are like a blur – growing up in the shadow of the post-9/11 military campaign by the US against the Taliban. Nangarhar, Jalalabad, Peshawar and Kabul – life passed by in one mad scramble.
Growing up with 10 free-spirited siblings has its joy, but Khan is also grateful for the challenges – for that’s what has made him a world-class spinner.
Confined to the courtyard because outdoors were not safe, the rules were simple – if you bowl fast it must be a plastic ball; the brothers batted in order of their age; play could go on for hours, and play was allowed indoors with slippers as the bat.
And Shahid Afridi was his idol – including the hairstyle and bowling action.
Khan’s first T20 team was called Kochai – meaning Nomad in Pashtun. From those nomadic days to now, when T20 teams scramble for his attention and no league is complete without him, Khan is among the foremost faces of hope and achievement amid war and displacement.
In tandem with the 20-year-old Khan, it’s the teenage sensation Mujeeb who complete the deadly spin-duo of Afghanistan.
Mujeeb, 19, is still quite an aberration in Afghan cricket. He was neither born in Pakistan nor does he speak Urdu. And he started learning cricket in 2010.
But it’s Mujeeb’s coach who is most interesting – YouTube.
The self-taught Mujeeb watched hours and hours of bowling on YouTube and practiced them until his fingers bled. He watched a lot of Ravichandran Ashwin and become a life-long fan. He started bowling with the taped tennis ball in the streets. It also helped that his uncle is one of the founding fathers of cricket in Afghanistan, Noor Ali Zadran. It was at his uncle’s cricket academy that Mujeeb began to bowl with the cricket ball for the first time, around 2013.
Two months after his international debut, at the age of 16 years and 325 days, he became the youngest player to take a five-wicket haul in a One Day International match. Mujeeb had arrived on the global stage.
But there was a more delightful twist awaiting him.
When Mujeeb was playing the Under-19 World Cup, someone was watching him very closely. Someone who was impressed with his wrong'un and the action. Someone who was so besotted with his bowling that – unknown to Mujeeb – he arranged for him to be bought off the IPL auction for the phenomenal price tag of $630,000 for Kings XI Punjab. That man was Ravichandran Ashwin.
Born in Puli Alam in Logar province of Afghanistan, the current captain of the one-day cricket team made his debut for Afghanistan against Japan in the 2008 World Cricket League. He is among the rare breed of Afghan cricketers who have had an undefined role within the team for a long time. That was, of course, until he got handed the captaincy for the World Cup – largely due to the quagmire of politics that’s also called the Afghanistan Cricket Board. He has batted as an opener and also as number nine in the batting order. He has bowled as an opener and in the death overs. And also played matches where he has neither batted nor bowled. He has been picked up and dropped from the team at whim.
Undeterred, Naib has soldiered on.
His gym idol Arnold Schwarzenegger never gave up – even when battling cancer. So that’s also not an option for Naib – even if it means being branded the fall guy. Naib took part in the documentary “Out of the Ashes,” which followed the Afghan team and their lives against the backdrop of violence. In the documentary, Naib is shown body-building in a Kabul gym. Even now, every time he gets a wicket, the stocky and muscular Naib puts his biceps on full public display. That’s redemption for the Afghan captain.
The record book says Mohammad Nabi was born in Afghanistan’s Logar Province on January 1, 1985.
But Nabi is not sure if that’s the exact date. Like millions of Afghans born during a time of strife and war, January 1 became a symbolic date of birth for him.
In any case, his family moved to Peshawar – fleeing from the Soviet–Afghan War – where he started playing cricket at the age of 10.
But Nabi was fortunate. His family moved back to Afghanistan in 2000.
Still, there were no proper cricket pitches, nor enough cricket gear. Nabi would help out his future teammates with money to buy cricket gear – at least whatever he could afford. His playmates included Mohammad Shahzad, Asghar Afghan and Shapoor Zadran – all of whom would become key members of the national team at various times. As a witness of the Afghan cricket team’s magnificent rise and epic struggles, Nabi has seen it all for the past 19 years. That’s why he is full of hope for the future.
Born in 1994, Shahidi made his One-Day International debut for Afghanistan against Kenya in October 2013. He was one of the cricketers to play in Afghanistan's first ever Test match, against India, in June 2018. And he also holds the record for scoring 865 runs in aggregate without a six in one-days – his first six came against Ireland earlier this year! As one of the members of the Afghan team who have lived in refugee camps in the border areas of Khyber and the North Western border of Pakistan – places where living conditions are deplorable and terrorism is a way of life – Shahidi still picked the bat and ball and floored everyone with his talent. When you have nothing to lose, you give it your all – and that’s how Shahidi loves to play his cricket.
The whistle of missiles, the thunder of bombs and the desperate days of refugee camps may be a distant past for the brave boys from Afghanistan.
But they still hear it every time they step out to play.
And that’s why their spirit never wavers, their cricket never yields – no matter what the result.
Their game is a prayer for peace and that’s why they are the real heroes of Afghanistan.
How Afghanistan scripted history with the UAE’s generous help
By A.K.S. Satish, Senior Pages Editor
Dubai: The UAE has played the stepping stone in the fairy-tale run of Afghanistan’s success story, from being an Associate member to a Test-playing nation over the last decade. To put it simply, Afghanistan cricket was born in Afghanistan, raised in the refugee camps of Pakistan and nurtured in the turfs of the UAE.
Sharjah Cricket Stadium has been the home for Afghanistan since 2009 when they got their One Day International status and played their first few games against Pakistan and Australia at the venue that holds the record for the maximum number of ODIs in the history of the game.
It was a very important move in their growth as no teams were willing to travel to the war-torn country then. Without the right international exposure, their game would come to a standstill. It’s here Sharjah Cricket Council stepped in and provided the right opportunity for them to make the giant strides that they have made now.
The Emirates Cricket Board has been supportive of Afghanistan’s endeavour in times of need as they invited them for the eight-nation Desert T20 tournament, which included hosts UAE, Namibia, Ireland, Oman and the Netherlands. The Afghans proved their mettle by winning the event, a crowning moment in their glory.
As an associate team, Pakistan too had lent a helping hand in Afghanistan’s fortunes as it was the Pakistan domestic tournaments that proved to be the breeding grounds for Afghanistan players to take the baby steps into the big league.
In the one-off Twenty20 event against Pakistan in December 2013, Afghanistan lost the clash by six wickets, but what’s more important is that majority of those players figure in the current World Cup squad. No wonder, they ran Pakistan close at Headingley, where they lost the match in the last over.
That’s not all. Abu Dhabi too hosted the clash between Afghanistan and England Lions and Etisalat was the sponsors of the team.
When the world was moving towards the franchise cricket, Afghanistan brought their own version and the ECB-sanctioned event was held in the UAE, making the country the proud hosts of three leagues – Afghanistan Premier League, Pakistan Super League and Indian Premier League, another feather in UAE’s cap.
With the Afghan cricketers having a huge fan-following in the UAE, the day is not far to seeing them play their home Test in their adopted homeland.
The Indian hand behind Afghan revolution
By Gautam Bhattacharyya, Sports Editor
Dubai: The indomitable spirit of the Afghanistan cricketers have made headlines more often than not in the last five years, but the quiet, professional approach of Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) also deserves a big hand for the growth of the country as an emerging cricket power.
The fairytale journey of Afghanistan started to bear fruits in this period – they have now qualified for two 50-over World Cups in succession, become a regular feature in World T20 and acquired Test status in 2017. Their debut Test against India last year may have ended predictably inside two days, but then countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh had taken longer to find their feet in the longest version of the game.
“It had been a long journey and we are thankful to the Indian cricket board for playing the big brother to us,’’ said Asadullah Khan, who has taken over as the CEO of Afghan board barely three months back. Be it the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) volunteering to host Afghanistan for the latter’s inaugural Test or allowing them to use two grounds in Noida and Dehra Dun to host the international fixtures for Afghanistan – the ACB cannot thank them enough for it.
Speaking to Gulf News in an exclusive chat from Kabul, Khan said they have drawn up a blueprint to build on the progress they have made so far. “We have approached the BCCI to grant us a third venue and it will be, in all probability, Lucknow. It is required as we will be hosting the West Indies for a full series in November, comprising of Tests, One-day Internationals and Twenty20s. We have also requested the Indian board for more matches against their ‘A’ teams and emerging teams,” Khan said.
With Afghanistan in the middle of their World Cup campaign, one expected their head honcho to be also in England but a candid Khan admitted he had enough on his plate to remain at home at the moment. “We have the second edition of Afghan Premier League starting in Sharjah from October 8-25, while we are introducing some interesting experiments to develop talent from our domestic circuit,” he said. Interestingly enough, Afghanistan wanted to host the second edition of APL in India but the BCCI have shot down the request for they have their own Indian Premier League.
Dwelling on the changes in their domestic scene, Khan said: “We noticed that despite having the right physique to become fast bowlers, we have been producing more spinners. In our domestic matches which are mostly three-day affairs, we have imported Grace red balls which offer good swing while it will be mandatory for the pace bowlers to bowl certain number of overs per day. We definitely need a crop of fast bowlers to improve our showing at the international stage.”
The sight of the likes of a portly Mohammad Shehzad, the wicketkeeper-batsman who was sent home from the World Cup on ‘medical grounds,’ may also become a thing of the past for Afghan team as ACB has also introduced yo-yo tests like India to improve the fitness levels of their cricketers.
With an eye towards towards bringing their domestic coaches upto speed, ACB has also requested the BCCI to allow 10 of their coaches to work as support staff with Indian state teams during Ranji Trophy next season. “We realized that it’s better to give them a hands-on experience rather than send them for attending seminars,’’ Khan said.
“We have limited resources, from which our priority is to invest for the infra-structure. Amul, the Indian dairy giants, are our sponsors for the World Cup but we will need such support on a regular basis for the future,’’ he added.