The remarkable rise of Afghanistan cricket

The remarkable rise of Afghanistan cricket

Afghanistan made history on Thursday when they won their first ever World Cup match. Their remarkable rise has captured the hearts, minds and imagination of cricket fans the world over. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

You’d have to have a heart of stone not to have been moved by Shapoor Zadran falling to his knees and then on to his face in celebration of Afghanistan’s maiden World Cup win on Thursday. They gave all involved a lesson in how to hold your nerve when the odds are stacked against you and completed a very nervy chase in a low-scoring thriller.

Afghanistan’s rise remains one of the most heart-warming and happiest in cricket. It’s in stark contrast with the tragic story of the country the rest of the world knows. Their victory wasn’t perfect and there was some downright shoddy cricket played at times, but it didn’t matter. Because when something means so much to a group of players, it doesn’t matter how you get there, it’s just that you get there. For Afghanistan, it has taken some getting there.

Just over 20 years ago, cricket was virtually unknown in the country. Nine years ago, there was no infrastructure to support the sport many of its now players had learned in refugee camps in Pakistan. In 2008, they were in division five of the World Cricket League, playing against teams such as Jersey and Japan. Now, they have captured the hearts and imaginations of cricket fans around the world. Their meteoric rise included a stint at the World T20 and many memorable wins, but this hasn’t come without challenges.

While the sport is flourishing and has become the most popular game in the country, infrastructure remains a problem. Funding (or the lack thereof) has slowed its growth, but the team has thrived despite adversity.

But infrastructure and funding is just one challenge. Not many captains will have had to deal with their fathers being kidnapped while trying to help their team qualify for the World Cup. During their quest to clinch a spot at the 2015 World Cup, captain Mohammed Nabi’s father was abducted and held to ransom. The kidnappers wanted a seven-figure payment, but ended up being caught and Nabi’s father was freed without being harmed.

Now, Nabi is the man who embodies this team’s phenomenal rise.

You play cricket a lot in refugee camps,” he told reporters when he first arrived in Australia this month for the World Cup. “Now I am the captain of Afghanistan in the first World Cup,” he said. “I am very happy to represent Afghanistan in the World Cup and hopefully I’ll enjoy the whole tournament,” he said.

These stories are not few and far in between. Rwanda is another country where cricket has flourished despite adversity. Imagine if they were given the opportunity to earn some money from broadcasting to help expand the footprint of the sport where it has already taken root.

After all, like former Afghanistan coach Taj Malik so poignantly said on the 2010 documentary Out of the Ashes, which followed the country’s attempt to qualify for the 2011 World Cup in the Subcontinent, “There is a lot of problems in the world today. Everywhere there is conflict, fighting and injustices happening. The solution of all the problems is… cricket.”

But it seems that the very governing body who can use cricket for good sees fit to rather reserve it for an elite few. The International Cricket Council (ICC) still think it’s a good idea to take the opportunity to play at a World Cup away from Afghanistan and other ‘minnow’ nations. But, maybe, they won’t be able to persist with their foolish decision for much longer. The associates keep knocking and knocking on the doors and the noisy swell of support for them is getting ever louder. An ardent cricket fan has set up a petition to help the generate some more noise around the issue. In just six days, it has garnered over 11,500 signatures.

Cricket writer/blogger Nick Sharland, who admits that he is often sceptical about the usefulness of petitions, also says he does think that there is some hope. “Well the end goal is obviously for the 2019 and 2023 World Cups to include more than 10 teams. I really don’t think it’s a pointless battle: the 2015 World Cup was originally going to be a 10-team tournament that the associates couldn’t qualify for. Then there was outrage among the associates and the public, and Ireland beat England, and here we are,” Sharland told the Daily Maverick.

“The aim of the petition is to quantify the sense of injustice at the decision to reduce the 2019 World Cup, and show that the presence of countries like Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland and the UAE is deeply important to cricket fans, and hopefully the ICC will realise that the competition will be bigger and better with more teams in 2019. The stories behind cricket in these countries are fascinating and inspiring, and there are countries like Nepal and PNG that are just starting out on that journey, just as the ICC are trying to close the door on them,” he adds.

But the buck does not stop with the fans. An invitation for a tour from a “full member” nation would do wonders for the expansion and betterment of the games of countries like Afghanistan and Ireland. Do the right thing, South Africa, Australia, England and India and invite these guys to come for a tour; the fans of the sport dare you. DM

Photo: Afghan boys play cricket in Kabul, Afghanistan, 19 February 2015. Cricket is widely popular among Afghans, since their national team is also participating in the current ICC World cup season, most of the Afghan youth play the game in the streets during early morning and afternoon. EPA/JAWAD JALALI


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