Game a symbol of hope for war-ravaged nation
Afghanistan’s cricket team is aiming to earn Test status by 2030, and even the Taliban are cheering them on.
For Afghans who have survived decades of fighting, the ongoing threat of suicide bombers leaves them in a heightened state of fear.
But cricket has introduced a rare feeling of joy in the fractured country, and it might not be long before Afghanistan is able to pull off upsets against powerhouse nations like Australia.
In a war-torn nation of 31 million people, cricket is not merely a sport in Afghanistan; it’s a symbol of hope and unification.
Even Taliban fighters have embraced cricket, with the Islamic fundamentalist group giving their blessing for people in the country to partake in the sport.
Afghan kids are now daring to dream of becoming international stars.
But while most professional cricketers have to deal with annoying fans or severe public criticism, Afghanistan’s players have far more dramatic issues occupying their thoughts when they’re back home.
“If there’s going to be a security threat, it will be from a suicide bomber,” Afghanistan coach Andy Moles says.
“And as people tell me, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, then unfortunately it’s curtains.
“You just have to be sensible – take different routes to work every day and stagger your times when you leave.
“We have armed guards at the ground and at the hotel. There’s soldiers on the streets and armed police.
“But generally the team feels very safe.
“The Taliban and people like that are very supportive of cricket. They see it as a unifying sport. They see it as good for the country.
“I don’t feel under threat myself, so the players feel even less threatened than I do.”
Most players in the current squad were introduced to cricket while growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan, including 29-year-old captain Mohammad Nabi.
“I spent the first 17 years of my life in a refugee camp,” Nabi says.
“It’s quite a complicated life there.
“Everything is tough. There’s no proper schooling, water or houses.
“Then you come back to your home and everything is destroyed in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan is slowly being rebuilt, and cricket is giving the population an escape from the daily horrors that still occur in the country.
Fifteen years ago, cricket was virtually non existent in Afghanistan.
Fast-forward to the current day and the cricketing minnow is quickly making its way up the ranks, with their qualification for the 2015 World Cup a huge step forward in their development.
Moles has witnessed first-hand the talent on display in Afghanistan, and the Englishman is optimistic the country will be playing Test cricket by 2030.
“They remind me of when I was playing at Warwickshire, and we came across Sri Lanka,” Moles says.
“And 20 years later look where Sri Lanka have got to.
“We’ve got some very talented cricketers in Afghanistan. There’s a very strong and popular base of cricket.
“And all the schools play cricket there now, so the future looks strong.”
Afghanistan touched down in Perth this week as part of a familiarisation tour ahead of next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The cricketing minnow will play two games each against Western Australia and New South Wales before moving on to NZ.
Afghanistan now has 40 contracted cricketers, and they are idolised back home.
“Everyone knows who they are. Captain Mohammad Nabi is a folk hero,” Moles says.
Moles, who played 230 first-class matches between 1986-97, was appointed head coach earlier this month after former Pakistan Test paceman Kabir Khan stepped down for personal reasons.
Afghanistan cricket doesn’t boast lush facilities, top-class training centres or a wealth of specialist coaching.
But they possess something money can’t buy – an ingrained fighting spirit.
Moles is trying to harness that fighting spirit, and complement it with improved skill sets and fitness.
“If you look back over Afghanistan’s history, a lot of people have been there to try to knock them over, and they haven’t done it,” Moles says.
“Some of these players were brought up in tents amongst hundreds of thousands of others in refugee camps.
“A lot of youngsters see cricket as a way of getting out of the slums and the disadvantaged areas.”
Afghanistan will take on Australia, England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, NZ and Scotland during the group stage of the World Cup.
Moles says his team, which recently beat Zimbabwe in two one-dayers, have set their sights on causing some damage.
“All it takes is a silly 10 overs in any game of cricket to win,” Moles says.
“We’ve got to win against Bangladesh and Scotland, and hopefully turn over one of the major sides.
“If we do that, we can get to the Super 8s.”
When Afghanistan’s players graced the pristine WACA Ground earlier this week, there was already a cricketer on the field doing some sprint training.
That cricketer was Australian pace ace Mitchell Johnson, and the Afghan players couldn’t help but watch on in awe.
“They’re obviously starstruck,” Moles says.
“Some of the English batsmen seemed quite starstruck themselves in the last Ashes series.
“But joking aside, these players really relish the opportunity to be on the field with some of these great cricketers.
“One or two will come up short, but one or two will also make a name for themselves.”
They say love can conquer all.
Maybe – just maybe – the love of cricket will help Afghanistan become whole again.