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19 February 2015

Afghanistan at the World Cup

"Appreciation for Afghanistan’s cricketing achievements is perhaps the only thing that links the government with Taliban forces."

By Tim Wigmore

The 29-year-old captain of Afghanistan’s national cricket team, Mohammad Nabi, was born in a refugee camp. It was in Peshawar, Pakistan, close to the Afghan border, that he first discovered the sport – though not in a form that traditionalists would recognise. Boys played with a stick and a knotted plastic bag, or, if one could be found in the camps, a tennis ball.

In 2001, shortly after the start of the war on terror, Nabi returned to his family’s native Afghanistan. “There were no grounds,” he recalls. “Nothing.” The first national team was made up of refugees who had returned home. In 2004, they were invited to compete at the Asian Cricket Council Trophy in Malaysia. It was the first time that any of them had been on a plane. Nabi, then 19, took three wickets in Afghanistan’s debut match – though the side was beaten by Oman.

They have come a long way since. Afghanistan are now second only to Ireland among the non-Test-match-playing countries, placing them among the top 12 cricket nations in the world. Nabi is preparing to lead Afghanistan in the Cricket World Cup this month, halfway across the world in Australia and New Zealand.

The story of modern Afghan cricket goes back to Christmas Eve 1979 and the arrival of Soviet tanks in the country. It marked the beginning of a decade-long war that forced millions of Afghans to flee to Pakistan. The Taliban, who rose to power in the 1990s following the defeat of the Soviet Union, did not look kindly on sport. Football was considered anathema. Yet, despite its association with empire, cricket was treated as an exception. The sport’s dress code was deemed acceptable and, besides, cricket was the national sport of Pakistan, one of only three states to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s official government. The elder brother of the first head of the Afghanistan Cricket Federation, founded in 1995, was a member of the Taliban. By 2000, Taliban officials were urging the federation to apply for affiliate membership of the International Cricket Council. The request was accepted in 2001.

Nevertheless, a series of unique problems continues to plague cricket in the country. For security reasons, the national team has never played a real home match. “Home” fixtures are played in the United Arab Emirates in front of thousands of boisterous expats. In 2008 a former member of the Afghan team was shot by US troops who suspected him of building a roadside bomb. And in 2013 Nabi’s father was abducted from his car in the Afghan city of Jalalabad and held captive for months. Shortly after his release, his son hit the runs that secured his team a place in this year’s World Cup. Chants of “Afghanistan, zindabad” (“Long live Afghanistan”) went up in the UAE.

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When the cricketers returned home after qualifying, they boarded a coach and drove through Kabul to celebrate their achievement. AK-47 shots rang out across the city in a show of support. Appreciation for Afghanistan’s cricketing achievements is perhaps the only thing that links the government with Taliban forces. The Taliban sent a message of congratulations to the players.

“The young generation is coming together and supporting the Afghan cricket team,” says Nabi. “From bad things like fighting and drugs, they leave everything and they support the team and they play cricket.

“Everyone will be watching the World Cup.” 

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