Refugee camps to world cup: Afghanistan

Journeys do not come much more extraordinary than this. Two years ago, Afghanistan were in Division Five of the World Cricket League, alongside such cricketing non-entities as Germany, Botswana and Japan. Yet in April, Afghanistan will be in the Caribbean for the World Twenty20. It is a staggering rise by any accounts – even forgetting for a moment which country it is.

Home advantage is often talked of as being crucial in sport – Afghanistan can only dream of it. They cannot even train at home, doing so in Dubai instead, as their country is still the scene of terrible conflict. But their exploits on the cricket pitch have been celebrated passionately, invoking clichés about the power of sport to bring joy to people’s lives even in the bleakest circumstances.

How on earth has cricket managed to make such an impact in a country with so little? Afghan refugees in Pakistan, where the popularity of cricket makes football in England seem a minority sport by comparison, began to pick up the game in the 1990s, forming the Afghanistan Cricket Federation in 1995 from Pakistan.

There was, however, a minor issue that prevented the game gaining popularity in Afghanistan: all sport was banned by the Taleban. But in 2000 cricket became the first and only sport to be permitted by them. In 2001 the Afghanistan Cricket Federation was elected as an affiliate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and, in extraordinarily trying circumstances, cricket began to take hold. Their fledging national side were marooned when in Pakistan playing local sides, as the UK and US invaded in October 2001.

Afghan cricket certainly does not conform to the stereotype of the game in England, played on village greens in the shires. There is only one grass wicket in the country. There are cricketing academies popping up as the national side’s success has grown, but fundamentally cricket is a game played on the streets in an incredibly disorganised manner. On rare occasions when it has been more organised, it has often been on the Ghazi Stadium. This is rather more noteworthy for being the home of Taliban executions.

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Funding issues could have prevented Afghanistan from competing on the world stage. But the Asian Cricket Council has been paying for travel and accommodation fees. This has allowed the natural talent of the Afghans to come through spectacularly. Since scraping past Jersey by two wickets in the final of World Cricket League Five in May 2008, Afghanistan now find themselves in World Cricket League One, putting them in the top six non-Test-playing nations. They recently defeated Ireland in the final of the World Twenty20 qualifiers to secure their place in the tournament proper. They would no doubt have relished their victory over the United States en route.

The sheer enthusiasm for cricket in Afghanistan is startling. Though exact figures are hard to come by, the Asian Cricket Council estimates there are currently 320 cricket clubs in the country. Furthermore, and highly encouragingly for cricket’s future growth there, Afghanistan has age group sides that take matters very seriously. Whilst the senior side qualified alongside Ireland for the 12-team Twenty20 World Cup, the under-19s were in New Zealand. Things went rather less well, with the Afghans finishing bottom of the World Cup. Cricket in Afghanistan is now a very serious matter, the one sport in which they can compete on the world stage.

There are certain expectations to meet. So much so that the U19 coach had an angry phone call from President Hamid Karzai to inquire about their disappointing performance.

Happily, any such calls to the senior side’s coach recently have been rather more celebratory in nature. Over the last two years, ICC events have taken Afghanistan on a jet-setting tour from the Channel Islands to Dubai via Argentina, Tanzania and South Africa. The chance to upset South Africa and India in the World Twenty20 is deserved indeed.

Timeline: Afghan Cricket

1979: USSR invades: cricket played in some Pakistani refugee camps
1995: Afghanistan Cricket Federation founded
2000: Cricket becomes the only sport approved by Taleban
2001: Gain affiliate membership of the ICC
2008: Win World Cricket League Division 5
2008: Win World Cricket League Division 4
2009: Win World Cricket League Division 3
2009: Gain full ODI status
2010: Qualify for World Twenty20 in April

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