Afghanistan- A land caught between the savagery of the Taliban and the sounds of Kalashnikovs. A nation where children are afraid to go to school with a book in hand, forget picking a cricket bat up, to challenge the cricketing superpowers.
But the rise of Afghanistan cricket from relative obscurity has been one of the greatest cricketing fairytales of our all-time.The nation’s proximity to Pakistan may have given them many a headache, but the one definitely good thing to have come out of this uncomfortable alliance has been their new-found love for cricket.
In 1995, the Afghanistan Cricket Federation had been formed to popularize the game in the country which later changed to Afghanistan Cricket Board. But then the Taliban happened soon after. With the strict imposition of their militant version of the religion came a blanket ban on sports of any form. But the ban on Cricket was, however, lifted as it endeared itself to even the extremists in the country.
The cricket bat soared and scored over the gun. And then, a journey began to defy the odds.
Afghanistan's journey began in its roots, however, not on its soil but in the refugee camps in Pakistan. Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup victory was inspirational. People of Pakistan were influenced and so were the Afghan refugees staying there. Afghans, who had migrated to the Eastern neighbor after the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, started playing the game on flat cement tracks. It was an escape from the endless difficulties that life had bestowed on them on a regular basis, and none of them ever gave a thought about playing the sport at a professional level. But, two years after ACB received the recognition from the ICC, Pakistan invited them to play in the second tier league of their domestic cricket.
The Afghan migrants, who had been brought up in Pakistani refugee camps, formed the initial nucleus of the national team. Players like Mohammad Nabi, Nawroz Mangal, Karim Sadiq, Shapoor Zardan, with their unbridled passion, took up the game to popularize the sport in the country. The team started playing in the second tier of the Pakistani domestic tournaments and after that in different countries to hone their skills.
Whatever the political instability their neighbor has caused, they have also found a godfather in Pakistan to look up to. Pakistan’s flamboyant all-rounder Sahid Afridi, who is originally a Pushtan (a common category of people in Afghanistan), has had a massive impact on them. Now, they were ready to come out to show the world their potential.
Afghanistan qualified for the division five of the ICC World Championships in 2005 and played against Jersey in their first game. They qualified for the ICC T20 World Cup in 2010 but narrowly missed out on an opportunity for the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup which was held in the Asian subcontinent. Even still, they had made rapid strides towards success till that time. With their passion and love for the game, they continued to impress almost at every platform at the world stage.
In 2015, they routed Zimbabwe in their own backyard in both the One day and T20 series. Given Zimbabwe is a Test-playing nation, the success mattered much more than the obvious. That fired them up to fight even bigger battles than before. Before that, Afghanistan had also achieved their greatest achievement by qualifying for the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup Down under. Coming from the refugee camps to the grandest stage of the world cricket was itself an accomplishment for the players. Defeating Scotland was a bonus. Wasn’t that?
There is a line that has pretty often been said that Sports unites people. These small joys like routing Zimbabwe, who have been searching for their soul in the game until now, defeating Bangladesh in an Asia Cup game, qualifying for the World cup, defeating Scotland there, defeating West Indies in the T20 world Cup, mattered a lot more than anything for the people of the country. The game united the people of the nation suffering with personal and national problems aplenty. They cheered for their stars battling out the odds on a different field now, a field that is unseen in their country, even now.
Supporting the underdogs and watching them succeed is what has made Sport such an addiction. And when the underdogs achieve the success after continuous face-off with miseries, the support grows manifold. Afghanistan’s progress in cricket is such an endearing story for everyone associated with the game. They are brave, passionate, and love to play the game with avid innocence. When they are in full flow, they are a treat to watch. They play cricket the way they love life- on the edge and with absolute disdain for safety.
The success of Afghanistan also has given a strong statement against the plan of ICC to trim down the number of teams in the 2019 World Cup to be held in England. The promise and self-belief to be successful in their game, which has been shown by teams like Afghanistan can’t be neglected. They just need more games against better teams to bolster their skills.
The team found support from unexpected quarters after the BCCI gave them a stadium in Greater Noida with all the facilities to practice and host their matches. The shot in the arm has further strengthened the team's ability to seriously challenge the cricketing heavyweights, but they needed to establish their cricketing culture in their own land, For that they need much more assistance in times to come from the ICC and other countries.
Former Pakistan great, Inzamam-ul-Haq, who acted as the chief coach of Afghanistan for seven months before taking up the mantle of the chief selector of Pakistan , quoted in an interview to ESPN cricinfo, that "The reason Pakistan cricket is down in the dumps at present is the absence of virtually any international cricket here. And Pakistan has been an established Test side for over six decades. Afghanistan cricket is in its infancy. If they want to reach the levels that Test sides are expected to be at, they have to organize international cricket there. They have to.”
Afghanistan does not have a cricket stadium of their own. They don’t have a first class cricket tournament even. Yet, they have scaled heights through their determination. And that is why Afghan cricket needs to be nurtured. It needs to be developed not only because of the love and passion that they have shown over all these years, it needs to be developed for the betterment of the game as well. Cricket needs them as much as they need cricket - they have created a ripple, even if small, in the stagnant pool that International cricket has become with the Ind-Aus dominance.
The true success of cricket would come on the day when Afghanistan will take on India in Kabul in front of 50,000 passionate supporters rooting for their team. One hopes the day would come sooner than later – when there is no fear of a Kalashnikov and only the whoosh of a cricket bat is heard as the people of that proud nation celebrate the homecoming of a game that has united all of them together and bounded them to a nation as different from themselves as India.