The Afghan Cricket Battle

Didn't know Afghanistan had a cricket team? You're not alone, but their rise to the World Twenty20 against a backdrop of bloodshed is nothing short of extraordinary.
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On May 1, 2010 the Afghan cricket team played India in the West Indies as part of the World Twenty20.  It was a day of many firsts for the Afghans: the first time any Afghan team had competed in the finals of a major sporting event, the first time an Afghan team had appeared on television, the first time the Afghan cricket squad had played a Test nation and the first time most, apart from the most ardent cricket fans, heard that the Afghans even had a cricket team.

On television screens across the world (and the game was screened in over 100 countries) viewers watched Afghanistan take on the might of India. Among the Indian team were household names such as millionaire wicket keeper and pin-up MS Dhoni, the temperamental and controversial bowler Harbhajan Singh and the supremely talented stroke master Yuvraj Singh. There were no household names among the Afghans, which was hardly surprising, it was their first major tournament.

Only nine years earlier, when American forces and their Afghan allies overthrew the Taliban, the cricket team was the worst in the world, literally. They were ranked 90th , the lowest of any nation,  below such cricketing minnows as Vanuatu, Brazil, Sierra Leone and Norway. By May 2010 they had become one of the top non-Test nations in the world (their ranking fluctuated between 11th and 13th in the world).

That a country had risen so far so quickly was unheard of in cricket, no nation had ever gone from the lowest division in international cricket, where Afghanistan started, to a World Cup (albeit the 20 over format, not the longer 50 over version, that they missed out on by one place).

Along the way they had to beat established cricketing teams such as Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Bermuda and Namibia. They also scored a morale boosting victory over the United States. The fact that none of the team were born in the US hardly mattered, the Afghans had beaten the Americans.

That Afghanistan had done all this it against a backdrop of war and insecurity made their journey all the more remarkable.

Afghanistan's history is one where war follows war. The protagonists change, but civilian suffering has remained a constant. Millions fled their homeland between 1979 and 2001, first when the Soviet Army rolled in, then when civil war engulfed the country, and finally when the brutal Taliban regime swept across the land. Tens of thousands ended up in the Kacha Gari camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, in Pakistan's volatile North- West Frontier Province. It was here that most of the Afghan team learnt cricket. Until the camp was closed by Pakistan in July 2008, it was the Afghan Edgbaston, Lord's and Old Trafford rolled into one.

If the game in England is smooth grass wickets, in Peshawar it's broken concrete and rutted, dusty pitches. The dirt tracks that dissected the camp were furrowed and many of the houses little more than mud huts. But the camp was, at its height in the Eighties and Nineties, a mini- city. More than that, it was a state in exile. Beside the mud huts, where the poor lived, stood the palatial houses of Afghan tribal chiefs and the elite. Kacha Gari gave the children of Afghanistan opportunities their homeland couldn't provide. They could go to school, they could walk around freely without having to worry about bombing raids or violence. And they could play cricket.

"It was the first time an Afghan team had appeared on television, the first time the Afghan cricket squad had played a Test nation and the first time most heard that the Afghans even had a cricket team."

"When the Red troops came we emigrated to Pakistan," Hasti Gul, a former middle order batsman, who is now technical director of the Afghan Cricket Board, told me. " Now, thank God, we are sitting in our country and we are representatives of our country. We thought we would never come back."

Although most still live in Pakistan, one of the world's cricketing powerhouses, the Afghan cricketers - out of a sense of national pride and a need to show their commitment to their fellow countrymen - hold much of their training in Kabul. Outside the Olympic Stadium, where the Taliban carried out public executions, is the Afghan National Cricket Academy.

The name is far grander than the facilities - four battered nets and an uneven patch of grass - merit. Like all of Kabul, it is covered in a light film of dust. The grass, or rather hard, packed earth with sprigs of green, is covered in it. At best, the dust tickles your nose; at its worst, when hit by a dust storm, it is impossible to stay out in the open, and the players end up huddling in a shed just outside the gates of the academy which doubles as a shop selling bats and drinks. When the team wants to play practice games, it has to travel to Peshawar, an eight- hour journey away.

Although much of the credit for establishing Afghan cricket goes to two men, Taj Malik- who was their coach between 2001 and 2008- and Allah Dad Noori- who established cricket under the Taliban in 1995 and was a former opening bowler- the man who guided their ascent through the cricket leagues was a Pakistani, Kabir Khan. Khan, who played international Test cricket, took over Afghanistan when they were three tournaments away from the West Indies, under his guidance, and against all the odds, the team won all of them.

While Taj Malik is a motivator, fixer and passionate advocate of the sport, Khan brought experience and real, deep knowledge. He is a cool, calm operator. "Ability- wise I was very impressed, "he said " It was more than I heard about them.” Taj had such influence on the team that for the World Twenty20 he was drafted in as an assistant coach.

The Afghans lost to the Indians by seven wickets but impressed all who saw them, they were not embarrassed in defeat. Dhoni, the Indian captain, said: “They batted really well after losing the first three wickets, their middle order was really good.

"And they were not letting anything go when they were fielding and bowling and it is a really good sign to see them play the way they did.”

On the day Hamid Hassan, a tall, well-built fast bowler from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan, wore a red headband and had painted the Afghan flag on each cheek.  If he looked like a soldier it was no coincidence, he told me he had modelled himself on Rambo, the renegade super-fighter played by his hero, actor Sylvester Stallone. He likes to compare the team’s journey to that of another Stallone character, Rocky.

“He was a normal boxer who, through hard work, became a champion. I want to be like that,” Hassan said.

Out of the Ashes: The extraordinary rise and rise of the Afghanistan Cricket Team, By Timothy Albone, is out now. Click here to buy a copy

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