A dusty wicket

Observations on Afghanistan

Marylebone Cricket Club, spiritual headquarters of world cricket, is trying to replace the clatter of machine guns in Afghanistan with the more gentle smack of leather on willow. The MCC has despatched the former England cricketer Matthew Fleming to the country to investigate ways to assist the sport’s development there, as the club is keen to support nascent cricketing nations.

Fleming, who played 11 one-day internationals and served in the Royal Green Jackets, spent two days in Kabul meeting with the president of the cricket academy, the minister of sport and other members of parliament "to establish", he says, "the level of interest in the sport, the state of the infrastructure and the ways that we might be able to help".

One obstacle is a lack of grass. The national cricket academy is a patch of dust, 100 metres by 50 metres, equipped with two concrete pitches. Throughout the country, games are played on rolled sand. Outfields are used as football pitches and even as rubbish dumps or latrines.

Despite this, the Afghan team are highly successful. They recently tied in the final of the Asian Twenty20 Cup. Last summer they toured England and demolished an MCC team led by a former England captain, Mike Gatting. Two members of the Afghan side, Hamid Hassan and Mohammed Nabi, were chosen to spend the rest of the summer in England as MCC Young Cricketers.

Hamid became the first Afghan cricketer ever to play at Lord's, and the pair are now playing professionally in Pakistan.

The sport failed to catch on in Afghanistan during the imperial period, but after the Russian invasion in 1979, millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan and discovered a love of the game in the refugee camps of Peshawar. Many leading Pakistani cricketers, such as Shahid Afridi, have Afghan origins.

When the refugees brought cricket home with them, they found the Taliban's attitude equivocal. Though initially opposed to such pastimes, they did not ban the game, once they were convinced that cricket was not an American invention. They even helped fund a tour to Pakistan in July 2001, although heavies from the ministry of vice and virtue would occasionally turn up at grounds to enforce prayer times.

So passionate are the Afghans about cricket that, after the allied invasion in 2001, two weak and dehydrated officials travelled by mule to Pakistan to deliver papers applying for affiliation to the International Cricket Council. Fleming is certain that they have the ability to match their enthusiasm. "They are fearless and fearsome, full of natural talent." He hopes the MCC will support the British embassy in funding the six regional leagues, and possibly with artificial wickets and coaching for schools.

Fleming also sees parallels between Afghanistan's political and cricketing prospects: "People are naturally optimistic. But no one is under any illusions about the challenges they face." He thinks cricket can play an important role in the construction of civil society: "Cricket is a way of focusing people's minds on all that is beneficial and positive."

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China