A camaradarie born of adversity characterises the Afghan cricket team and, despite being ranked last among the 12 nations taking part in the Twenty20 World Cup, which begins this week, they are beginning to give the big boys a run for their money. Lynne O'Donnell reports. Pictures by Siddharth Siva
''It's more than a game for us," says Hamid Shinwari, chief executive of the Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB). "The feelings and happiness of the Afghan people are at stake. Through this game we can establish peace in Afghanistan."
Shinwari is sitting in an overstuffed, embroidered, crimson chair in the lobby of the black marble hotel that is his team's home away from home, in Ajman, one of the smaller constituents of the United Arab Emirates. In the UAE, the Afghans are the hosts, as the Sharjah Cricket Club, in the neighbouring emirate, share their 25,000-seat stadium with Afghanistan, so the team have somewhere to call their own when playing international matches as long as war and the Taliban continue to terrorise their country.
Afghanistan are preparing to play a one-day game against Australia - the cricketing world's equivalent of David taking on Goliath. No one who knows anything about cricket seriously expects the underdogs to win, though. This is Australian charity, which has been generously extended in the past to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, as they endeavoured to develop their cricket and join the game's elite as test-match playing nations. And because cricket is "a funny game", as legendary former Australian captain and the undisputed "voice of cricket" Richie Benaud likes to say, there's always an outside chance that things could go Afghanistan's way.
As it plays out, Afghanistan lose, but not without putting up a valiant fight and validating their brag that they will soon be a major force in world cricket.
The Afghans still have a long way to go before they join the 10-member test-playing league, but they have made astounding progress in recent years in the one-day international (ODI) and Twenty20 (single innings, 20 overs for each team) variants of the game. They are currently ranked 14th in the world, having risen from 39th in 2005.
It's the good news story of world cricket - one that players, commentators and sports reporters love to love. The country's history as a battleground where poverty, misery and ignorance are the norm makes the triumphant march of the plucky Afghan cricketers a heart-warming tale. It has been made into an award-winning documentary called Out of the Ashes, which concentrated more on the interpersonal politics of the team than their cricket-playing prowess. Even as losers, the Afghans get the winning share of media coverage.
The team's success, for a country desperately in need of it, has also propelled cricket into the national consciousness. Players, officials and fans insist it is now Afghanistan's national sport.
That's a significant claim. Afghanistan is divided along ethnic, tribal, linguistic and religious lines that have been exploited by politicians, warlords, drug barons and violent Islamists, such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network. Until recently, the game was associated exclusively with ethnic Pashtuns, and as such was largely shunned by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who make up the population of about 30 million.
All members of the national team are Pashtuns, whose territory straddles the eastern and southern regions, bordering Pakistan. They learned to play cricket while living in refugee camps in Pakistan, their families among the millions who fled when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
Most remained in Pakistan during the civil war that filled a governance vacuum after the post-Soviet administration collapsed in 1992, three years after the Russian army withdrew.
After the fall of the Taliban's 1996-2001 regime to the United States-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks on America, many refugee families began returning to their homeland. Those who returned from Pakistan took cricket with them.
Star batsman Karim Sedeq's family fled Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, about 115 kilometres along one of the world's most dangerous roads from Kabul, when he was three years old. His father, an anti-Soviet mujahideen commander, took his family of eight boys and three girls to the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Sedeq, 28, recalls a day shortly before the family fled, when their village was assaulted by Russian helicopters.
"There were a lot of bomb blasts in my village. On [that] day, maybe 30 people were killed, including children and women. Our life was difficult in my village, and my father said, 'Here it is not good or safe, so we are going to Pakistan'," Sedeq says.
Upon arriving at a refugee camp in Peshawar, Sedeq says, he saw television for the first time. "Every day, Pakistani television was showing cricket, live telecasts; so every day cricket was coming into my mind. So I started playing."
Sedeq played club cricket in Peshawar, and eventually established a team of Afghan refugees that, he says, did so well, finishing runners-up in a club tournament, that they were drummed out of the league.
"They said this is not Afghanistan, this is Pakistan; you don't play here. So we were banned," he says.
By this time, the Taliban had been routed from Afghanistan and Sedeq's family returned to Jalalabad. His older brother, Taj Malik Alam, established the national team with the endorsement of President Hamid Karzai, and became their first coach, launching Afghanistan on the path to qualification for the 2010 World Twenty20 in the West Indies.
Perhaps inevitably, the team's success was Alam's downfall, and he was replaced as coach by former Pakistan national player Kabir Khan. Alam had taken the team as far as he could; it was time to get serious and bring in the professionals.
Today, the Afghan team are supported by the International Cricket Council's (ICC) global development programme. Grants of US$700,000 a year are supplemented with advice and education on playing, coaching, umpiring and administration, as well as opportunities to compete.
Globally, cricket is divided into three categories: the 10 test-playing nations, called "full" members of the ICC; 36 "associate" members; and 60 "affiliate" members. Afghanistan are an affiliate, with promotion to associate likely at the ICC's annual general meeting in mid-2013. However, Tim Anderson, the ICC's global development manager, says that, apart from a boost in annual funding to US$1 million, associate status will make little difference to the Afghan cricket team.
"If you're a good affiliate - and these guys are - you can actually get everything you would if you were a very good associate," he says. "Nobody else as an affiliate is anywhere near as good as these guys, so they are in a unique situation. They don't play affiliates, because they are good enough not to. So they already play Ireland, Kenya, the Netherlands, Scotland and Canada - the best associates."
For Shinwari and others involved with Afghan cricket, playing at their own level isn't enough. They are desperate to play full members, and Shinwari bemoans: "For God's sake, in four years this is the second ODI game we have played."
"Afghanistan is the only affiliate of the ICC which has got the capacity to play with any international team," he says.
At their only other ODI, against Pakistan in Sharjah in February, Afghanistan were soundly beaten, as their batsmen are generally unable to hit high scores against aggressive world-class bowling. Sedeq was the exception, and his team's highest scorer, with a respectable 40 runs.
Fitness is a major issue, according to the team's Australian fitness coach, who rolls his eyes as one of his charges strolls through the hotel foyer carrying takeaway fast food and an enormous paper cup of branded soft drink.
Nevertheless, Shinwari insists: "We can give a tough time to full members; we have got the skills.
"If we want to go to the next step, we have to seek the assistance of the full members. We have to improve our skills, and they improve when the team plays with the international players, particularly the full members.
"A few years ago, we were playing [the English Channel Island] Jersey," he says, referring to Afghanistan's humble introduction to world cricket. "Now we're playing Australia."
Anderson says he understands Shinwari's impatience, but he notes there is "a big gap between associate and full members. Afghanistan want to play the big boys, but they're not big boys yet".
The "big boys" - Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Zimbabwe - have packed schedules of test, ODI and Twenty20 cricket, and rarely have time to squeeze in matches they don't have to play.
Australia travelled to Sharjah a week early for an August series against Pakistan so they could play the Afghans. Last year, they played Ireland while on tour in England. The Australians are widely appreciated for giving minnows matches.
Shinwari complains that Afghanistan's test-playing neighbours - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - won't give them games, and wonders aloud if politics play a part in that reluctance.
Cricket is undoubtedly an intensely politicised sport and is effectively controlled at the global level by India, a giant in the game both on and off the pitch due to the enormous amounts of money at stake domestically, from television and advertising. The Board of Control for Cricket in India further capitalised on this cash cow with the introduction in 2008 of the high-octane Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 club premiership worth an estimated US$3 billion, which offers huge purses to some of the world's best players. This is adding pressure to the already-packed international cricketing schedule.
All this cricket, says Anderson, means the game's powerhouses are just too busy to accommodate the likes of Afghanistan.
"Ultimately the members have to agree to play each other," he says, adding: "Everyone wants to play India and the Indians have to decide what's right for them."
The ICC picked Afghanistan and Ireland as the two developing members to play in this month's World Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka. Among the 12 teams to have qualified, the Afghans are ranked No 12 and are drawn in the same group as India (the game is to be played on Wednesday) and England (to be played on Friday).
For continued support from the ICC, Afghanistan need to demonstrate their commitment in a number of ways, including using its initiative to get games with full members outside those organised by the ICC. Afghanistan must play enough cricket to justify a professional squad and administrative infrastructure, and show that the game is developing grass-roots support at home to ensure it has a future.
"You need to look below the surface at what is going on in Afghanistan itself, at the facilities and the administrative structures," says Michael Hussey, an Australian star whose batting prowess has earned him the nickname Mr Cricket. "It can't be underestimated; it's really important if they want to rise in the world rankings, play cricket at the international level and maybe in the future challenge Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Ireland."
Neglecting the need for institutional professionalism has seen the West Indies drop dramatically from their world-beating heights of the 1970s, he says, while England has benefited from concentrating on this aspect of the game in recent years, only this season relinquishing their No1 spot to South Africa.
"[Short-form cricket] is a great game, it's about bringing people together, people from different cultures and countries," says Hussey. "There are so many different cultures and nations represented in Australia and the Twenty20 format is being used as a vehicle to bring as wide and diverse a range - young, old, different colours and races, and women - into something we can enjoy and fall in love with.
"Cricket has great values - being part of a team is very important. There's the old saying that you can have a champion team and a team of champions, and the champion team will always win. It's about playing together, the values and ethos of team membership and co-operation. For the Afghans to have something like cricket that everyone can play, participate in, watch and enjoy, really gives them hope."
The contagion of success could see Afghanistan start to attract more interest from international personalities, Hussey says, noting that their under-19 team is coached by former Australian fast bowler Geoff Lawson, who coached Pakistan from 2007 to 2009. ACB figures suggest that Afghanistan is already starting to mirror the rest of the sub-continent, where any patch of rough, empty ground is transformed into a pitch by youngsters using home-made bats and balls. Across the land, village teams are playing informal matches, and even in remote towns, a carpet thrown over a patch of beaten earth becomes a pitch.
Kabul and Jalalabad are leading the development of the game domestically: both cities have stadiums, which the Taliban used as execution grounds but which now attract huge sporting crowds - 8,000 in Kabul; 15,000 in Jalalabad - when the national or under-19 teams play. The ACB has another eight grounds, including in Kandahar, often referred to as the "heartland of the Taliban", and the northern city of Kunduz. At least 2,000 teams play in senior competitions, including district, provincial, regional and national tournaments, and the ACB plans to set up a Friday competition in Kabul province for 10 to 15 local teams from next year, which it hopes will become the national template. The ACB hopes to develop a premier league competition in coming years, to feed talent into the national side.
Already, it says, many schools have introduced cricket into their timetables, with about 20,000 boys and 1,000 girls playing in junior competitions, with equipment supplied by the ACB. No one knows how many scratch matches are played in villages across the impoverished countryside, though teams have been established in 32 of the country's 34 provinces.
ACB selector Raees Ahmadzai says about 600 boys turned up in Kabul for a recent try-out for the under-16 team. So far, they are mostly playing the more accessible shortened forms of the game; test cricket will follow.
Afghanistan's cricket authorities are doing their best to make the game a centrifugal force for national unity - planning, for example, to have players drop surnames that denote their ethnicity or tribe, as many do.
"Most players are still Pashtuns, but that is starting to change, especially as it gains popularity across the [non-Pashtun] northern provinces, where we have set up cricket academies," ACB spokesman Nasratullah Wafa says.
The under-19 team, ranked 10th following the recent World Cup tournament in Australia, reflects that broadening base, he says, with its mostly Pashtun players joined by Tajiks and Uzbeks.
Sedeq - a younger brother of whom, Aftab Alam, plays in the under-19 side - says it is natural the national team is made up of Pashtuns because "we went to Pakistan during the war and learned cricket; other people went to Iran, where there is no cricket".
"Now our youth teams, under-16s, under-19s, have Tajiks, Hazaras and others. Then they will move into the national team. Every player who has talent is most welcome," he says.
His confidence is reflected among the fans at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium noisily cheering on the Afghans against Australia.
"We want relationships with other countries and cricket is performing a good role for peace," says 34-year-old Mohammad Laiq, who came to the UAE from his hometown of Kandahar, where the war has been fiercest, 14 months ago to work as a driver. "It will bring happiness to our country."
As he talks through the fence, another man is angry that the question of inclusion even arises. "We are all Afghans, one people," he shouts.
Assadullah Fahreedzai, a 31-year-old Tajik working as a political adviser to Norway's ambassador to Afghanistan, says as he watches the match that cricket "really helps in promoting national unity, which is a dire need for Afghans.
"It has been significantly damaged in the last two decades, unfortunately, by our corrupt politicians who really take care of their own political interests. The people really don't have problems among themselves, all consider themselves Afghans.
"In Kabul you will see in every home, whether it is Tajik or Uzbek or Pashtun, they will be watching cricket and they will be supporting this team," he says. "We have good quality players among Pashtuns. It is only a matter of time [before] we will [have] good players from other ethnicities, too."
Even the Taliban, whose war on the Afghan government and its Western supporters has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in the past decade, has given cricket its backing, congratulating the team on its performance against Pakistan in February.
"The Taliban message, which came from the ruling council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, also said that the Afghan cricket team has a bright future," says Wafa. "That's a sign that cricket can play a great role in bringing people closer and reducing distances between the Taliban and the government."
After the match, Sedeq, who followed up a bouncer from Australian bowler Mitchell Starc that smashed into his helmet with a mighty hook that went for four runs, says he has no doubt where Afghanistan are heading.
"Maybe in the year 2020, Afghanistan will be world No 1, or 2, or 3," he says.
SEAL OF DISAPPROVAL
Hong Kong's ban on Afghan cricketers competing in next month's Karp Group Sixes tournament elicits a sigh and a shrug from Hamid Shinwari, chief executive of the Afghanistan Cricket Board.
"What can we do?" he says. "This is their decision."
Afghanistan's cricket team have been barred from entering the territory because the country appears on a list of those whose athletes are refused employment visas by the Hong Kong Immigration Department. Before it could issue visas, the department would need to get clearance for each applicant from the Security Bureau.
The International Cricket Council (ICC), which supports the Afghan cricket team with an annual grant of US$700,000 as well as advice on all aspects of the game, is not involved in the Sixes. Visas for the Afghans are the responsibility of the tournament organisers, the ICC says.
The Afghan team have a home ground in the United Arab Emirates, courtesy of the Sharjah Cricket Club, which recognised that no international team would be prepared to travel to Afghanistan while the country remained in the grip of war.
In recent years, the team have travelled to more than a dozen countries, including Britain, Canada and the mainland. This month they will participate in the World Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka after being drawn in a group with England and India. Afghanistan are one of only two developing cricket nations to have been invited.
The team have risen to rank 14th in the world since being welcomed into international cricket in 2005 at No 39. The players learned their game as refugees in Pakistan, where they grew up after their families fled the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979, and where they stayed until the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.
Shinwari says they are desperate for more international matches, as only by playing the top teams can they improve their game.
"It is a pity that Hong Kong doesn't want us," Shinwari says. But after everything the team members have been through, they're not going to lose sleep over it.
The loss, they seem to believe, is Hong Kong's.