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The Afghan cricket coach Taj Malik Khan began playing the sport after school using a tree as a wicket and a tennis ball covered with electrical tape.
The Afghan cricket coach Taj Malik Khan began playing the sport after school using a tree as a wicket and a tennis ball covered with electrical tape.

In import, Afghans find national glory

Driven out of their country first by invasion, then civil war, Afghans discovered cricket at refugee camps in their adoptive Pakistan, and nearly won the Asia Cup this year.

As the Afghanistan batsman Mohammed Asghar Stanikzai moves to the brink of his century, the team's coach, Taj Malik Khan, is already at the boundary, state-of-the-art digital camcorder in hand. The tape is running when Stanikzai hoists the very next delivery high into the sky. His fate is temporarily in doubt as the ball ends its towering arc by arrowing towards the hands of a Bahrain fielder. Yet, he is in luck. The ball pops straight back out and dribbles over the boundary rope. Stanikzai has his first 'ton' for Afghanistan.

Khan captures his celebration, which is tempered slightly by exhaustion in the sapping heat of the Kuala Lumpur summer, and the customary raised-bat signal towards his teammates. The coach spins around and starts filming the rest of the team, who populate the front rows of the Bayeumas Oval pavilion. To a man they are on their feet, wildly cheering and applauding their friend: "Shabash, Asghar, shabash!"

Khan is wearing a natty, sponsor-issued green singlet, with the logo of Etisalat on the front. On the back, the legend "Proud to be an Afghan" is inscribed across the shoulders. At this tournament, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Trophy in Malaysia, his handy-cam is used exclusively to save memories, such as Stanikzai's hundred, for posterity. The Afghanistan Cricket Federation, of which Khan is also the general secretary, recently inaugurated its first cricket academy at the only ground in Kabul. Thanks to ACC funding, they now have four turf practice nets. It is not bad for an organisation set up only in 2001 and which is faced with obvious challenges.

Any pride at what his side have achieved in such a short space of time is not immediately recognisable on Khan's face. He seems disappointed that they have failed to dominate Bahrain as easily as he had hoped. Then he starts to talk. "I wish my father was around to see this," says Khan, 33. "He was so against cricket. Often, he broke our bats and our wickets and would shout that we were not devoting enough time to our studies.

"At that time he thought it was not possible for cricket to be of worth. He thought we would go back to Afghanistan after the Russians withdrew and we wouldn't play again." Back, that is, from Kacha Garhi, the refugee camp located in Hayatabad in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, where Khan lived from the age of 12. The camp, which housed thousands of displaced Afghans before its closure in 2006, proved the starting point for the most unlikely sporting revolution.

"I first started playing cricket in the refugee camp in 1986, along with my brother Karim Sadiq and Hasti Gul, who currently play in my national team," recalls Khan. "When the Russians came to Afghanistan and occupied the country, millions of people emigrated to Pakistan. They didn't have places to live there, so there were many refugee camps set up. "One day, one of my friends was listening to his radio, and I asked if he was listening to some songs or music.

"He said, 'No, this is a cricket match, Pakistan v India' - you know, the series when Imran Khan got too many wickets. "I asked him what cricket was, and he said, 'It is a very good game. When some teams come to Pakistan I will take you to the bazaar in the city, and you will be able to see it on the TV'." He saw a game and was, he says, inspired by the former Pakistan captain Imran Khan. "I tried to copy him, playing with a tennis ball with electrical tape around it. Then I bought my first bat. It cost 13 rupees. We used a tree as the wicket. We would gather after school in any open space we could find."

He was, he says, physically strong and very good at stone-throwing and athletics and participated in all sports in the camp. "We made a team, and within three or four years the game had become popular in the camps. Then we started to play with the local people. We tried to make an Afghanistan team, but then the civil war started, and it was impossible to go back to Afghanistan." Finally, "when the Karzai government came in, we were able to start a cricket federation, and have a national team.

"At first we were not a very strong team, but seven years on we have developed a very, very strong team." So strong, in fact, that they finished, agonisingly, just one win short of qualifying to play against the game's top players from India, Sri Lanka and, poignantly, Pakistan, at the 2010 Asia Cup. It is typical of the eccentricity of cricket that the final of this ACC Trophy, which takes place today between the UAE and Hong Kong, is very much secondary in importance to the two semi-finals. If Afghanistan had beaten Hong Kong in their semi-final on Friday, a place in the final - and the Asia Cup - would have been theirs.

"We are trying so hard to reach the ultimate in the cricket world, which is to play at the World Cup and the Asia Cup," says Khan. "I am sure we will achieve this one day, inshallah." Some of Afghanistan's players are already playing first-class, professional cricket. Perhaps the most promising is Mohammed Nabi, an all-rounder who recently scored a century for Pakistan Customs in the country's premier one-day competition. Last year, along with the fast-bowler Hamid Hassan, Nabi was inducted into the MCC Young Cricketers programme, the prestigious finishing school which includes among its alumni such greats as Ian Botham and Mark Waugh.

"I want to be a famous cricketer in the future," says Nabi, 23. "We will try to make Afghanistan a great cricket nation. "There are never any problems at cricket matches in Afghanistan, it is quite safe. Everyone likes cricket. We are very proud that we come from Afghanistan." Many of the players share their time between playing at home in Jalalabad and Peshawar across the border. "They have a full season in Jalalabad, then there is snowfall in Afghanistan, at which time there are perfect conditions in Peshawar to play cricket," says Khan.

After the Karzai government came to power in November 2001, he approached the Olympic Committee and sought permission to set up a cricket federation. "They didn't support it at first. They said, 'This is a Pakistani game, it won't develop here. People should not waste their time'. "But in 2002, the Pakistan Cricket Board gave us the chance to play in their domestic tournament. It was a good experience. It was the first time we had played at proper grounds, with a hard ball and umpires there."

Before the Bahrain innings starts, Nabi snatches the new, blemish-free bat from the opening batsman's grip. He lifts it a couple of times, plays some shadow shots, then hands it back, looking impressed. Envious perhaps? "There are many shops in Afghanistan which sell cricket equipment," says Khan. "That is no problem, and many companies are offering to buy equipment for us. "We ask them if we can give them money, but they say, 'No, we want to do this for free'."

@Email:pradley@thenational.ae

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