The flower of cricket blooms in war-torn Afghanistan

 Samiullah Shenwari, Mohammad Shahzad

Youths turn away from suicide bombing as Afghan cricket advances unparalleled

 

Naimat Khan

JALALABAD: The game of cricket had captivated the attention of the Afghan nation much before the world witnessed it national side’s heroics at the 2016 World T20 tournament.

The associate Afghanistan, the side which beat the World Champions West Indies in the T20 event, received a hero’s reception at the Alokozay Kabul International Cricket Stadium upon arrival. They were honored by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with civil awards.

“You do not only give honor to the Afghan nation, but hope,” the president said, while decorating the heroes with Ghazi Mir Masjidi Khan Excellence Award in a reception held at the presidential palace.

Though Afghanistan only managed to win against Windies, they won the nation’s hearts.

On a chilly winter evening much before the World T20 began, hundreds of youths gathered in Pashunistan Chowk, Jalalabad on December 29, 2015 to watch the second One Day International between Afghanistan and Zimbabwe on big screen.

Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province, is considered as one of the most dangerous provinces of Afghanistan, where six districts are under influence of the militant Islamic States (IS) group.

The same province is now emerging as the hotbed for cricket in Afghanistan.

Karim Sadiq is one of the pioneers of cricket in the provincial capital, and was also the part of the squad featured in World T20.

When this scribe contacted Sadiq in late January this year, he seemed confident of his teammates.

“The historic win against Zimbabwe has boosted our morale and we are confident we will compete the full members of ICC,” he told this scribe before leaving for India to participate in the 2016 Asia Cup.

Although it couldn’t record any win in the Asia Cup, the young Afghan team left no stone unturned in World T20 – won all three matches of the qualifying round and beat the Windies – the champions.

“In recent years, Afghanistan have defeated some powerful teams,” said team captain Asghar Stanikzai in post-match presentation, adding, the team will witness more wins in the years to come.

From nothing to heroic

Ibrahim Momand, a Kabul-based sports expert recalls how in the 90s Pashto language daily Wehdat had stories on the Afghan cricket team visiting different districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan.

However, the soccer enthusiast Afghans didn’t even know a national cricket team existed till they won six of seven matches they played with different counties of the United Kingdom.

Afghans became attracted to the game when the national side beat Ireland in the qualifying rounds for the 2009 World T20 tournament.

However, the success wasn’t at all possible without support of the Afghan government, and the cricket board.

Sadiq says government ministers facilitate the Afghanistan Cricket Board.

“The board has funds and provides facilities to the players, attracting new talent,” he says. “Former president Hamid Karzai separated cricket from other games and established the board. Dr Ghani has also supported the team.”

Sadiq adds, “We have two grounds, each in Kabul and Jalalabad. A stadium will also be constructed in Khost. It may take long to host international sides but the grounds will improve domestic cricket.”

Learning from legends

Afghanistan is also thankful to Pakistan for its role in uplifting the game for them.

“We are thankful to Peshawar Cricket Association, which would allow two Afghans each in their club teams,” says Sadiq.

Sadiq says the training given by former Pakistani players such as Kabir Khan and Rashid Latif greatly impacted their game.

“Inzimamul Haq’s coaching helped us defeat Zimbabwe, Sadiq says. “We are appreciative of our Pakistani coach, who has worked hard on improving our batting technique.”

Once soccer, cricket has now become Afghanistan’s popular sport; attracting young, elderly and the women alike.  “Victory in a war-torn country brings happiness and pride,” a cricket enthusiast Sayed Kamal Sadat said.

Peace for cricket and cricket for peace

JalalabadCricket Fans from different districts of Nangarhar Province gathers to watch second ODI between Zimbabwe and Afghanistan on Big screen in Pakhtunistan Chowk of provicial capital Jalalabad: Photo Credit/Bashir Ahmed Gwakh

 Experts say Afghans do not spare revenge, and cricket is an alternative, positive exploit for the Afghan nation.

“A caller once told me he was ready to become a suicide bomber but it was cricket, which changed his mind.”

Cricket spoils brainwashing efforts of the militants, he says.

“A caller once told me he was ready to become a suicide bomber but it was cricket, which changed his mind.”

“If cricket is vital for peace, peace is also vital for cricket in Afghanistan,” says Sadiq. “A better security situation will help us host different teams in Afghanistan, where local crowd would support us”.

Ground ahead

Inzamam, Afghanistan’s batting coach, in a post-match briefing praised his team’s self-belief, and reiterated the call for more opportunities to play against the Full Members.

“All our previous matches have been neck-to-neck,” he said. “There haven’t been one-sided matches, it’s not like a team makes 200 against us and we are all out for 100 or 150. The team has been fighting, and the belief is always there”.

Afghan skipper Asghar Stanikzai adds,”In the next one or two years we will be a serious team and beat these Full Members. We have potential.”

After overpowering the Associates, it seems Afghans will soon achieve the target of joining the Full Members club of the ICC.

Published in The Frontier Post