x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Afghanistan cricket's emergence from refugee camps to the global stage

The Afghanistan cricketers played in last year's World Twenty20. Next on the 10-year-old side's radar is the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

A four-wicket win over the UAE, in Dubai last year, to qualify for the ICC World Twenty20, was arguably Afghanistan cricket’s biggest achievement. Players revelled in that moment.
A four-wicket win over the UAE, in Dubai last year, to qualify for the ICC World Twenty20, was arguably Afghanistan cricket’s biggest achievement. Players revelled in that moment.

The qualifying process for the cricket 2015 World Cup, to be played in Australia and New Zealand, begins this week.

For the players from Afghanistan, it means the adventure is about to start all over again.

Australasia is one place that their storied tour of the cricketing globe has not yet taken in.

But almost everywhere else has been covered during their rise from refugee camps to international cricket's top table.

As with all great voyages, part of the joy of the great Afghan cricket journey has always been found in returning home.

"For the past five years, the Afghanistan team has been coming up and up and up," says Mohammed Nabi, the side's captain in 50-over matches.

"We qualified for the World Twenty20 [in the Caribbean] and won the Intercontinental Cup last year. It made the boys very popular in Afghanistan and the team very popular in the world.

"When we win tournaments and go back home, the people at the airport are very happy, cheering the boys. They are proud of us."

Afghanistan's arrival on cricket's world stage has been remarkable. They first cobbled together a prototype national team in 2001, the year the Taliban government in Kabul was overthrown.

The landscape has altered much in the decade since. Cricket was one sport that the Taliban had permitted, on the condition that players kept a beard and prayed on time.

The morality police deigned that players could celebrate taking wickets or reaching a batting milestone with nothing more raucous than a handshake. Supporters were not allowed to applaud.

Accordingly, all of the players in the inaugural Afghan national team sported beards. Of the team which will face the UAE in two 50-over matches this week, some do have beards; some do not. They now have the freedom to choose.

Freedom of expression has not been wasted on them. Throughout their ultimately successful qualifying campaign for last year's World Twenty20, Hamid Hassan, a young, clean-shaven fast bowler, wore miniature Afghan flags on each cheek during matches.

When he took wickets - which was often - his teammates usually had to wait for him to complete a succession of joyful forward rolls before they could shake his hand.

Their supporters at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium for the final day of that qualifying tournament fed off the exuberance of the players.

When the bounty of a trip to the West Indies was eventually secured, it was greeted by a pitch invasion of unbridled happiness.

Supporters hurdled the barriers, and ran on to the outfield. Some waved framed pictures of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, above their heads, while others danced on the grass.

"When they won, I was so excited I ripped off my shirt," Nawaz Khan, a supporter, says at the memory, miming as though he is tearing his salwar kameez to shreds again.

Nawaz is a symbol of the new Afghan cricket supporter. On the first day of their four-day match against the UAE this week, he sat in the front row, playing a wooden harmonium and singing songs at the top of his voice, which resonated all around Sharjah Stadium.

War left him unemployed in his native Khost, and 15 years ago he moved to Dubai and found work fixing fishing nets near the abra station on the Deira side of Dubai Creek.

For the past three years he has held a job as a taxi driver, which is handy for transporting his friends and his harmonium to cricket matches. Sometimes he brings drums instead.

"I enjoy coming to the game, watching the cricket and playing my music," he says. "I travel to wherever the Afghan team are playing in the UAE to watch them, and take my friends with me in my taxi. The team make us proud to be Afghan."

More than anything, the sport has provided a journey of discovery for the pioneers of Afghan cricket.

When they travelled to their first tournament on the [International Cricket Council] ICC's competition pyramid, Division Five in Jersey in 2008, some of the players thought they were going to New Jersey in the United States.

Before departing for "an island in Europe", some of them voiced concerns over whether the food there would be halal. One of the team officials resolved to eat only fruit for the duration of the tour, just to be on the safe side.

Three successive promotions later, and Afghanistan are arguably the best side outside of the Test sphere.

Happily for the UAE this week, Kabir Khan, the coach whose influence on Afghanistan cricket has been substantial, will now be on their side of the glass partition which divides the two dressing-rooms.

Kabir features prominently in a documentary movie called Out of the Ashes, which charts Afghanistan's attempts to qualify for this year's World Cup in India.

At one point, Kabir is shown berating the Afghan players after a batting collapse, telling them they are not worthy of representing their country. Not worthy, in his view, of even playing street cricket.

He says he has not seen the film. However, rather than cringing at the thought, a grin spreads across Kabir's bearded face when he is reminded of his rant.

"Those are the sort of things you have to say," he says. "The players showed me a huge amount of respect and they respond.

"If I say they are not good enough, they see it as a challenge. They want to show you they are good. You need to know their psyche." Since Kabir left a year ago, to take up the role of UAE coach, Afghanistan cricket - off the field, at least - has been in flux.

The idea that success has a thousand fathers, while failure is an orphan, might have been written for Afghan cricket.

The majority of the first crop of Afghan international cricketers first learnt the game in refugee camps in Pakistan, which housed tens of thousands of Afghans displaced by the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979. They were to stay until 1988.

Back then, even the parents of those involved did not want to know. Taj Malik Khan, the first coach of the national team, has often said he wished his father had lived to witness the success story of Afghan cricket, given how he at first dismissed the game.

"Often, he broke our bats and our wickets and would shout that we were not devoting enough time to our studies," Taj said.

Now everything has changed. Having seen the successes the players have brought to their country, everyone wants a piece of the cricket pie.

For example, the Afghanistan Cricket Board has had four chief executives in a short space of time. The volatility of Afghan cricket politics, it seems, neatly parallels that of the country's government.

The team are currently without a permanent coach, although Aftab Habib, a one-time England Test player, is filling the breach in a caretaker capacity this week.

You get the sense that the less time the Afghan team spend in their home country, the more attractive the proposition would be for an experienced new coach.

Kabir, however, believes Afghan cricket will progress only if their coach is willing to go to Kabul to do his job. When he was in charge, Kabir often crossed the border from his home in Pakistan's north-west without a visa, which is officially required to enter Afghanistan.

He attributes much of his success to being inside the country. "I think the secret behind it was just the fact I was like a local boy there," he says.

"I understand the language, I am from their culture. Although I live on the border in Pakistan, my forefathers are from Afghanistan.

"I was coaching them in Afghanistan, I was not scared of going there and crossing the border. Other coaches will be reluctant to go there."

The ICC is assisting the Afghan board with the appointment of a new coach, as it did when Kabir was recruited.

The process has not been helped by the myriad changes in the make-up of the country's cricket administration in the recent past.

"It has been a challenge," says Richard Done, the ICC's high performance manager. "There is a degree of confidence that those guys who are there at the moment seem to be doing a really good job."

Done also stresses that, given the fact the Afghans were good enough to secure three successive promotions to get where they are today, perhaps concerns over their occasionally temperamental administration are overplayed.

Afghanistan's national team "are a good lesson", he says. "They seen to do most things right, against a reasonable amount of adversity."

pradley@thenational.ae


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