Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghanistan’s cricketers rise to the world stage
Afghanistan’s cricketers are playing heavyweights India in their opening match in the 20-over World Cup on Saturday, capping an extraordinary journey from refugee camps to the game’s top table.
It couldn’t be a more unlikely pair walking out to the green in the Caribbean island of St. Lucia than captains Mahendra Singh Dhoni of India and Nowroze Mangal of Afghanistan to toss the coin at the start of the match.
Dhoni is just coming off the Indian Premier League, having made millions of dollars playing cricket’s richest tournament and the endorsements that come with it, even though some of the sheen is off because of allegations of corruption clouding the tournament.
Mangal, by contrast, learnt to play cricket in a refugee camp in Pakistan with a ball made out of cloth and shoes for stumps. When his team won an Asian Twenty20 competition in 2008 — the tournament that marked the start of their journey to the top — Mangal was given a parcel of land worth $60,000. His team each get a day rate of about $75 when they are on tour, according to the Times.
Unlike India or Pakistan, Afghanistan doesn’t have a cricketing history. Ten years ago cricket did not officially exist in the country. It was suppressed, like most things, by the Taliban, although the religious rulers later relented on the grounds that the sport had frequent breaks in it for prayers. In 2008, Afghanistan entered the lowest rung of cricket’s international ladder, playing the likes of Japan and Vanuatu. Now they are one of the top 12 nations competing in the T-20 World Cup.
They are not easily cowed down. With no player above the age of 26, they have the fearlessness of youth. As South Africa’s captain Graeme Smith said when told that an Afghan batsman had declared himself unafraid of Dale Steyn, one of the world’s fastest bowlers: “I wouldn’t be either, if I had grown up in a war zone,” according to the New York Times.
Timothy Albone, who is writing a book on the Afghan cricket team to be published in 2011, recalls that the day the team qualified for the World Cup in a play-off in Dubai earlier this year, foreign troops launched another huge military operation in Helmand.
“While the armed push was the big news story across the world, in Afghanistan it was the cricket team that stole the headlines. Finally this nation had some heroes. In a country with so little hope and so few good-news stories, the cricket team are one and their nation is proud of them,” he writes in The Times.
Another military operation is imminent, this time in neighbouring Kandahar province, and one that is meant to decisively turn the tide against them in the nine-year war. The world will be watching the Marines’ advance into the heart of Taliban territory, but for thousands of Afghans the exploits of their cricketers in the far-off Caribbean islands will be a bigger story.