x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Sharjah Cricket Stadium is a field of Afghan dreams

Watching the Afghani cricket fans celebrate is a reminder of the unifying, and healing, power of sport. Having a successful team to cheer on helps too.

Plays by Gulbadin Naib and his teammates were met with raucous applause and cheers, leaving Scotland's captain Gordon Drummond to remark 'they are the 12th and 13th man'.
Plays by Gulbadin Naib and his teammates were met with raucous applause and cheers, leaving Scotland's captain Gordon Drummond to remark 'they are the 12th and 13th man'.

From the chattering in Pashtu to the songs and flag-waving, a home away from home has been found in the UAE

From a nearby mosque, the post-Friday prayers sermon could be heard. But unless you spoke Pashtu, you would not have understood a word. Just as well that, inside Sharjah Cricket Stadium, to a man, the gathering Afghani crowd could.

From the outside, it is not the most glamorous of sporting arenas. Several people are enjoying an early afternoon cup of tea, even as the action commences a few metres away inside the ground. Spectators casually passing a bored-looking goat as they enter the stadium, free of charge. And the wooden benches inside could do with a lick of paint.

You would have been forgiven for thinking this was not the UAE. It seems a world away from the glitz of horse racing's Dubai World Cup or Formula One's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

But once the action starts, the old stadium comes alive. On the lush green field, and in near perfect weather conditions, Afghanistan's cricketers were looking for their second win, against Scotland, in the World Cricket League Championship. In the stands, their noisy fans were simply wonderful.

To the UAE's Afghan community, this corner of Sharjah has become a home away from home. And thanks to the country's cricketers, who now stand four wins away from qualifying for the Cricket World Cup, a place to celebrate.

"We come to every match here if we are not working," Iqbal Mohammed, a lorry driver, says in broken Arabic. "It's better for us on Fridays, because we can pray and then come here."

Throughout the afternoon, latecomers ambled into the sparsely used Qasim Noorani Stand, opposite the main grandstand, where the majority of the crowd concentrated.

Exclusively Afghan. And, it almost goes without saying, male.

Most work for construction companies as labourers or drivers. A few have made their way over from Dubai as well.

There were as many Scottish fans as visitors to the, on this day at least, superfluous ladies washrooms.

With every Scottish dismissal, the cheers and horns grew louder, and the red, black and green flags fluttered higher. And never more than after the dismissal of Kyle Coetzer , who had scored a magnificent 133 for Scotland.

"They are the 12th and 13th man," the Scotland captain Gordon Drummond said of the Afghan fans later.

In between the innings, they passed the time like most crowds do these days. Mostly typing away on mobile phones or posing for photographs. Some listened to radio commentaries, in Pashtu of course. Others just played Afghan songs.

Above all, there lingered a sense of pride.

These days, the mere mention of Afghanistan, rightly or wrongly, evokes images of war and bloodshed. But watching the Afghan fans, perhaps more than their heroic team, you are reminded of the unifying, and healing, power of sports.

Of course, having a successful team helps, too.

And how the Afghan batsmen came out swinging, in every sense.

A few early fours followed by two magnificent sixes by Mohammed Shahzad as Afghanistan raced to 50 in a little over six overs.

The word "boundary" peppered the otherwise Pashtu conversations.

As the required rate dropped, the noise level rose.

The party in the main stand was underway.

And you got the feeling the last thing on the minds of these fans is their country's exhaustingly over-documented socio-political troubles, or their last shift.

These stereotypes, like the Cinderella aspect of their cricketing success, are a little worn out, and a little patronising.

Before entering the stadium, these fans would have passed the ICC Anti-Racism Code which warns against language or actions that "offends, insults, humiliates, intimidates, threatens, disparages or vilifies another person on the basis of that other person's race, religion, colour, national or ethnic origin."

It is highly unlikely any of the 7,000 fans that eventually made their way into the ground would have read it, or indeed needed to.

"We have never had any trouble with the fans here, " an Emirati security guard confirmed. "The atmosphere is always happy."

It is not hard to see why. This is sport as escapism in its truest form.

Here, there are no VIP sections.

No hospitality tents.

No distractions. Just cheering on your team at the end of a hard week's slog.

And not for the first time, that team did those fans proud, seeing off the Scottish challenge with eight balls to spare. For the fans, the now increasingly familiar celebrations would carry on into the night.

For the team, bigger challenges lie ahead. After the match, Drummond tellingly spoke of facing Afghanistan in "their back yard".

For now, Sharjah Cricket Stadium indeed does feel like home for Afghanistan's fans and players.

But a few more wins and they will have to get used to playing on the world's biggest stages as well.



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