Afghanistan was always attributed to multiple wars, militant groups, and bloodshed. However, this narrative is changed over the few years, and Afghanistan is now on the map but for all the right reasons. It is cricket that has given life to wounded hopes in Afghanistan. The Rise of Afghanistan is a testament to the country’s never-say-die spirit.
In September 2019, Afghanistan defeated Bangladesh in a test match played in the latter’s home country. It was the country’s second test win out of a total of three tests it had played. Bangladesh is a strong test-playing nation, and defeating it prod many cricket fans to applaud the young cricketing nation. However, young would not be an appropriate word to describe Afghanistan’s Cricket legacy.
Rise of Afghanistan: The humble beginnings
The first-ever record of a cricket match dates back to 1839. But, politics, war, and military aggression killed the spirits of bat and ball. However, cricket remained a common sport on the streets of Kabul among teenagers. Cricket is called a gentleman’s sport because, in its earlier days, it was played only by men from affluent backgrounds.
On the other hand, Afghanistan was a war-afflicted country, and it is staggering to see players making their name in International Cricket despite not starting from “affluent” beginnings. This sport has to be more than just a game.
Taliban Regime and Cricket in Refugee Camps
The decline of cricket can also be attributed to militia group Mujahideen and its open war against the Afghan communist government in the years of 1979-1992. By the late 80s, several militant groups had captured much of the country’s territory. Within this extremist group, several factions emerged and dictated their autocratic rules for the civilians.
One of the factions that emerged out was the Taliban which carried out brutal killings and persecution until its fall in 2001. Many got killed, and the streets became an avenue of surveillance. Many sports, including cricket, were banned. Several families fled the country to sought refuge in Pakistan to escape the brutality of the war.
It was those refugee camps where cricket was resurrected as a sport. Meanwhile, in 2000, the Taliban lifted its ban from cricket. In those refugee camps, this sport gave the desolate children hope and ambition. It incentivized the players to persevere in the utmost pressure and encourages them to fight back even after a defeat. This passion stems from those refugee camps.
Formation of Afghan Cricket Federation
In 1995, Afghanistan Cricket Federation was formed to promote cricket by the refugees in Pakistan. The players practiced on the Cricket grounds in the neighboring country. Several of these Afghanistan players went on to play domestic cricket in Pakistan.
Even the under-19 squad is trained in Pakistan by the country’s elite coaching staff. According to UNESCO, access to sports is every child’s fundamental right, instilling respect and discipline in a sportsperson. Afghan players taught themselves the required disciple, which is responsible for their imminent rise.
According to the Afghan Cricket Board, “Cricket gave a hope of unity and prosperity to the nation that had been in war for over three decades, which raised the public’s expectations from the national team to play as a unit with even higher spirits.”
Unstoppable journey as ICC’s affiliate member
Afghanistan was then awarded affiliate membership of the International Cricket Council in the year 2001. The same year, Afghanistan made its first tour against the Pakistan team, losing three matches and drawing.
In 2003, they became a member of the Asian Cricket Council(ACC) and participated in the ACC U-17 tournament in the following year in Malasia. They stood sixth in that tournament. Afghanistan became the runners-up to Nepal in the ACC Under-15 Cup.
2006 was the year when they started witnessing more success in the Asian circuit by becoming runners-up to Bahrain in the Middle Eastern Cup. They even won a match, played in Mumbai, against Melbourne Cricket Club(MCC) by 171 runs. This match also consisted dismissal of Mike Gatting for a duck.
The same they toured England and played and defeated the renowned County Cricket Clubs like Essex Second XI, Glamorgan, and Leicestershire. They also defeated Nepal to stand third in the ACC trophy 2006.
In 2007, they were runners-up to Nepal in ACC Under-19 Cup. They shared ACC Twenty20 Cup with Oman in a final that ended as a tie. They created a substantial impact in the World Cricket League, winning 5th and 4th division tournaments. These tournaments are organized to qualify for the Cricket World Cup in the same.
The following year, the Afghan team jostled its way to the Cricket World Cup Qualifier 2011 by winning the WCL Division 3, 2009. In April that year, Afghanistan gained ODI status, which was an incredible achievement considering they officially started in 2001. They won their first match against Scotland with 89 runs.
On 2nd June 2009, the status of the governing body of Afghanistan Cricket was elevated from a Federation to an independent Board, called Afghanistan Cricket Board(ACB). ACB pledged to “ACB adopt good governance practices to ensure that key relevant results are delivered in terms of accountability, responsibility, transparency, and solidarity.” However, in the qualifiers, they failed to progress into the Cricket World Cup.
Further success in the 2010s
On 10th February 2012, Afghanistan played its first match against Test-playing nation in Sharjah against Pakistan. They even hosted Australia in Sharjah to play a One-off ODI match. They lost both the matches but the occasions gave their unit a much-needed boost. The very next year, Afghanistan was promoted to the status of an Associate Nation from Affiliate Nation.
ICC’s associate nation is the one where cricket is well organized and structured. There are 92 Associate nations as a part of ICC. These associate members then fight for ICC’s permanent membership, which makes them the test playing nations.
Afghanistan finally qualified for the Cricket World Cup 2015 by finishing second in the ICC World Cricket League Championship. It defeated Kenya by seven wickets to join the group of best of the best.
The World Cup 2015, jointly held by Australia and New Zealand, gave a platform for the team to display their skills as well as provided the indelible experience of playing against the big teams. They clinched their first world cup victory against Scotland, but they lost their remaining five matches.
The Ammunition in the form of Young Players
The biggest challenge for most of the rising teams in the inadequacy of new talent. This is the reason behind Ireland’s stagnant growth in world cricket despite having a bunch of highly talented players.
The O’Brien brothers, who created havoc in the 2011 Cricket World Cup, are still the most dependable players in the current Irish team. But, this is not the case with Afghanistan. The younger talent is rather more promising than the highly skilled, experienced players. Rashid Khan, Daulat Zadran, Mujeeb Ur Rahman are some young players making their names on the world stage.
The young boys won the Under-19 Asia Cup in 2017, beating Pakistan in the finals by 185 runs. Afghanistan was also the semi-finalist in the Under-19 ICC World Cup 2018. They lost to Australia in the final match. In June 2017, Afghanistan became a full member of the ICC and played their first test match against India.
Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan were the first Afghan players to be picked up for the IPL 2017. Sunrisers Hyderabad bought them both while the latter was bought at the price of 4 crores. The same year they clenched the T-20 ranking of number 8.
Cricket and the Bilateral Ties
India-Afghan bilateral ties have also help Afghan Cricket to thrive. The two countries have been friends since the Soviet rule in Afghanistan. Apart from economic aid, development projects, or construction of new parliament buildings, India has been at the forefront when it comes to providing diplomatic support to the war-torn country.
Earlier this month, India supplied 500,000 million doses of vaccine to Afghanistan. In December 2015, India signed an MOU with Afghanistan, making Shahid Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex the latter’s official cricket home ground. Talking about this move, the ACB president said, “this is a historic day for Afghanistan cricket, and this will strengthen the relationship between two countries.”
The Afghans have also been hosting other teams in Rajiv Gandhi International Cricket Stadium, Dehradun. It is the same ground where Afghanistan scored the highest T20 score of 278/3 against Ireland, thanks to Hazratullah Zazai scored an innings of 162*.
Afghanistan team spends most of their time training in India, and some of the players have fostered great popularity among the Indians as well. Rashid Khan became trended on Twitter when he scored match-winning 34 runs off ten balls in an IPL 2019 match against KKR. He also took three wickets and became the man of the match.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani crafted a tweet thanking India for providing “our players a platform to show their skills. Rashid reminds us what’s best about Afg. He remains an asset to the cricketing world”. Even Afghan players have expressed their gratitude to the Indian government and its people for the relentless support.
The Role of Cricket in Rebuilding Afghanistan
Afghanistan started the 2021 journey by defeated Ireland in the ODI series by 3-0. They are next prepping for the Test match against Zimbabwe. This young team has come a long way from the refugee camps. Their journey is the emblematic representation of determination, perseverance, and hard work.
In 2007, they won their first-ever continental championship, and now they are counted among the top ten ODI teams in the world. Many refugees went back to Afghanistan after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban government in Kabul.
The refugees brought back the game of cricket. With Afghan players making a name for themselves and the country, this sport has become a religion. The youngsters are now seen with a cricket bat on the streets rather than Ammunition.
In 2007, the then captain of the Afghanistan National Cricket team Raees Ahmadzai, told Al Jazeera, “We are doing something special for our country, something for peace. We want to change the minds of people and convince them that war is bad. I want the whole country to have the same unity as our team”.
Cricket, Hope, and Peace
Afghanistan is slowly returning to peace, although the Taliban still holds a fear among the civilians. Many people who might not have known about this country ten years ago are now cheering for its players in T20 premier leagues.
The team is thriving in this sport and is also creating a legacy for the country’s younger generation so that they can freely play the sport on Kabul’s streets without fearing a missile attack.
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