Afghanistan is an unlikely home for the sport of cricket. But its national team has proudly clawed its way to the game’s upper echelons.
By John Mehaffey
The expression on Afghanistan cricket captain Gulbadin Naib’s face betrayed his dismay.
A torrent of words detailed his deep unhappiness about his team’s performance at the World Cup in England.
A side with a most romantic backstory had failed to win a single game in the 10-team tournament, which ends on Sunday at Lord’s in London with hosts England and New Zealand meeting in the final.
“I am very disappointed with the performances,” Gulbadin lamented after losing his team’s last match to West Indies on July 7. “We played very badly here. We didn’t give 100 percent.”
But then, with unconscious understatement, he added: “We’ve achieved a lot of things in a short time.”
One of the more astonishing stories of modern sport
The emergence of an international cricket team from war-ravaged Afghanistan, chronicled in a BBC film called “Out of the Ashes” and then in a book of the same name, is one of the more astonishing stories of modern sport.
Cricket is a bat-and-ball sport, similar to baseball in that the individual battle between the bowlers (pitchers) and batters form the heart of the action. It is played throughout the world, but of the teams taking part in this year’s World Cup, Afghanistan was the only one that was not part of the old British Empire.
Afghanistan’s epic journey began in December 2001, when thousands of Taliban fighters fled U.S. bombers seeking to oust them after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
Taj Malik Alam, carrying a spare change of clothes, a cricket bat and a ball, was travelling the other way from a Pakistan refugee camp. His mission? To establish an Afghani cricket team in a country where the game was virtually unknown, and then take it to the World Cup.
Taj had spent 16 years in the Kachi Gari refugee camp near Peshawar with tens of thousands of other Afghanis while his father fought Soviet troops who had invaded his country in 1979.
A model of how to meet tough international challenges
Eight years later, he fell in love with cricket after watching the World Cup, which was staged that year in India and Pakistan for the first time. Taj and his three brothers started playing with a stick and plastic bags wrapped up to make a ball, and the game spread rapidly throughout the camps.
After arriving in Kabul, Taj lobbied the Afghanistan Olympic Committee (which at that stage had yet to produce a single medal) to approve his venture.
He helped form the Afghan Cricket Federation, which was duly registered with the international governing body, the International Cricket Council. He then persuaded friendly officials in the British Embassy to successfully lobby clubs back in England to supply clothes and equipment.
Teams were formed, grounds prepared and an Afghan national team started the long, torturous process to work its way up through a series of international tournaments to qualify for an abbreviated, one-day World Cup tournament.
Fourteen years after Taj’s epic journey, training and playing in primitive conditions that would have dismayed a less resilient and versatile team, Afghanistan qualified for the 2015 World Cup, staged in Australia and New Zealand, where it defeated Scotland, another unheralded cricket nation.
“I might suggest if we are searching for a model of how to meet tough international challenges with skill, dedication and teamwork, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team,” former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a visit to Afghanistan in 2010.
“For those of you who don’t follow cricket, which is most Americans, suffice it to say that Afghanistan did not even have a cricket team a decade ago.”
‘We can take positive things from here.’
“Out of the Ashes” features footage of an early qualifying tournament in Jersey in 2008, where Afghanistan’s campaign began with a match against Japan in which Gulbadin made his international debut as a fresh-faced teenager.
His first passion was bodybuilding, and he is filmed in a Kabul gym flexing impressive muscles in front of a photograph of his then hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Gulbadin was a late appointment as captain for the tournament in England, and several of his decisions were criticised. His passion, though, remained undimmed.
“After this tournament, we should improve our cricket, we should improve our skills. So we should improve in every department of cricket. We learned a ĺot of things here. So we should work on them,” he said.
“We can take positive things from here.”
John Mehaffey has worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.