'Cricket is vital, it can bring peace to Afghanistan'

Many of their players learnt the game in refugee camps, but are now blazing a trail at the World Twenty20 Cup. Today's tie against the US, however, is about more than sport.

Robin Scott-Elliot
Thursday 11 February 2010 01:00
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It is a curiosity of a fixture, one of the more improbable to appear on an international schedule; the United States against Afghanistan, at cricket. It's a game of double take and one deserving of a second look.

There will not be many inside the grandly titled Dubai International Cricket Stadium this morning when the latest round of qualifying games for the World Twenty20 Cup in the Caribbean in April resumes, but the handful who do turn up will be witnessing the next step in what has been an extraordinary journey for the cricketers of Afghanistan.

The look of the fixture resonates beyond the field of play, but it is the uplifting narrative of a passage from refugee camps to international cricket that is particularly striking. "It is a great thing that cricket can bring people together and that players from Afghanistan and the USA can play each other in an international match," wrote Hamid Hassan, one of the Afghan's leading players, on his blog on the Cricinfo website yesterday.

This will be their third game of the tournament that will produce two qualifiers to take a place alongside England, India, Australia and Co in the West Indies, and Afghanistan are already proving the team to beat. They have played two, won two, against the favourites, Ireland, and Scotland, who have played at this level for many years.

In contrast, Afghanistan's experience is negligible. Four years ago they toured England, playing fixtures against the likes of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst; two years ago they beat Jersey to win Division Five of the World Cricket League; last January they beat the Cayman Islands in Buenos Aires to win Division Three. By last April they had secured one-day international status and just missed out on reaching the World Cup proper, since when they have begun playing first-class games, drawing with a Zimbabwe XI and beating Ireland and the Netherlands.

"The way they have come through the last year or so has been phenomenal," said Kabir Khan, the former Pakistan Test player who now coaches the Afghan side. "Nobody can quite believe it. Sixteen months ago we were ranked 130 in the world, now we're 13/14th. It's a great chance for the players themselves, and the country."

Khan comes from Peshawar in the North-West Frontier province and it was around its dusty streets that many of his players too were raised, displaced victims of the Russians and then the Taliban. They grew up in refugee camps and while there took happily to the game that entrances their host nation.

"Many were born in the refugee camps in Pakistan," explained Khan. "There was no cricket culture in Afghanistan. They started playing in the schools and streets of Pakistan, and now a cricket culture has developed. There is a younger generation that follows the game hugely. Our Under-19 side reached the World Cup and our Under-16 and -17 sides have won tournaments in Asia. There is a lot of talent out there, a hunger for cricket that can be developed. President Karzai is the figurehead of the cricket board which shows how far the sport has come."

The president may be the figurehead but his grasp of the game remains a little tenuous. "When I last saw him," said Khan in Dubai recently, "he asked me to explain the BMW rule. I said that the first thing he needed to know was that it was called lbw."

Karzai's failure to understand the intricacies of the game may be an understandable question of more pressing matters to hand, but his cricketers believe they can play a part in helping their country's healing process.

"No other sports are as popular as cricket in Afghanistan, but we can't blame the government for a lack of support because they obviously have got other priorities," said Khan. "I think the increasing popularity of cricket is important. It can play a part in bringing peace to the country, bringing normality. Cricket can play a major role in a peaceful Afghanistan."

As yet they do not play in Afghanistan, and the search for places to play and practise is never-ending. "There is one proper ground in Kabul but conditions are not brilliant and the security level is a concern," said Khan. "We can be an easy target so until everything gets more stable we will keep the training camps outside the country.

"We've managed to place some players in first-class competitions in Sri Lanka and are asking Pakistan and India to help. We are exploring playing as a team in one of the Indian domestic competitions."

They will start this morning as strong favourites against the US after their opening victories. The team has genuine talents. Mohammad Nabi is an off-spinner who bats with the bluster of a Shahid Afridi; Noor Ali, a 21-year-old opener from Khost, hit a hundred in each innings of his first-class debut, against a Zimbabwe XI, becoming only the fourth player ever to do so.

"In fielding, we are not the best but our bowling and batting is up to scratch," said Khan. "What has really impressed me is that we are doing it again and again. If you win one game people say it is a fluke, but we are doing it again, beating Ireland and Scotland, the best teams at this level."

The US fixture has created something of a sideshow, but Khan is heartened by his players' approach. Perspective does not need handing out around his dressing room. Instead, for his charges it is just one more stopping-off point on the journey of a lifetime.

"It is only a cricket game," he said. "I asked the boys how they feel about it: 'It's not war, just sport', they said, which is a good answer as I was worried about their inner feelings. It's just a game, whether we win or lose.

"These players have a real hunger for the game. Throughout their lives they have seen real lows and a lot of hard times during the war and afterwards. They want to prove to the world that there is more to Afghanistan than war."

Out of the ashes: Afghanistan's rise

*1995: The Afghanistan Cricket Federation is founded

*2001: Afghanistan are granted affiliate membership of the ICC, cricket's world governing body

*2006: Play first game against the MCC in Mumbai – and beat them after Mike Gatting is out for a duck

*2006: Tour England playing games against county 2nd XI sides, winning six games out of seven

*2008: Win Division Five of the World Cricket League with victory over Jersey and then top Division Four after beating Hong Kong

*2009: Win Division Three and then beat Denmark, Bermuda, Ireland and Scotland in just missing out on qualification for the World Cup

*2010: Beat Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup and then beat them again and Scotland in opening two games of qualifying for Twenty20 World Cup. Need to reach the final to qualify for West Indies

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