The Afghans who nailed down their inspirers before thrashing Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, share a light moment with the slinger - Pic Ishara S. Kodikara
By Champika Fernando in the UAE
Watching how Afghanistan sent the five-time Asia Cup champions Sri Lanka packing home, I was wondering how did men from the landlocked country with the eternal turmoil reached such greats heights within such short time.
This remarkable accent will even surprise Afghan’s biggest cricket fan, given the obstacles they had surmounted on the path to excellence: emerging from the refugee camps in Peshawar and to rise within the rubbles of a constant turmoil back at home.
But today they are no more a pushovers but a complete package that can even surprise the best in the trade. But how did they reach such unprecedented heights within just 23 years after cricket was officially recognized in the country. It’s just phenomenal.
Add to their success story is Rashid Khan—is 20-years-old leg-spinner who is probably the most famous Afghan alive as he is now ranked the world’s highest rank bowler in limited over cricket.
“Look, before we were just trying to compete in tournaments but not anymore,” said team manager Shir Agha Hamkar. “It’s a thing in the past. We don’t want to just make up numbers but we want to win matches. We don’t want people to say that Afghanistan made an upset. Those are old words for us. We are a full team, a complete package and a dangerous unit just like any other full member team.”
They say it was the love and the passion that scripted their story together—one that country’s like Sri Lanka now should emulate to get out of the rut they are deep buried.
“It was all about the love and the passion we had for the game,” said Mohammed Nabi, senior player who honed his skills in the backyards of their refugee camp in Peshawar, when his parents, like most had to leave the country due to the Russian invasion in the 1980’s.
“We didn’t mind the struggle as we were deeply in love with the sport. So when we started playing in ICC division cricket, our only intention was to win matches and qualify for the next round. We did that very well and here we are today showcasing our pride to the world.”
Like many Nabi did not like to dig deep into the struggles in the past, something they would love to forget and enjoy the hard earned success which has brought a smile to everyone’s face—leaving all their difference aside.
“Cricket brings a smile to the faces of Afghans which otherwise sees only death and destruction” Hamkar said. “It’s a great healer too. We can unite people and we can unite countries. So cricket is the only source we can depend that it will bring peace and unity to our country.”
When Nabi returned to his homeland at the end of the invasion, he took back the gospel of cricket with him, just as many others of his age did. But forging an identity as a cricketing nation was not an easy task, given the mighty obstacles they had to overcome. There were no grounds, no cricket gear anmost of the time even proper meals.
“At that time (1996), there was nothing in Afghanistan to play cricket, no grounds, no equipment, and no domestic tournaments. So we have to start everything from the scratch,” Nabi explained.
Perhaps this struggle had made them play with a purpose—a purpose to excel and be the best in the trade unlike our own cricketers who seems to have lost their purpose and pride.
“But we continued to strive for the game that we were passionately in love with to bring cricket from zero to where it is now. When we started to win matches, it helps us keep going. There was the public support that follows us and this really motivated us to keep going. Things are much better today. There are grounds, we have national academies, we have a proper domestic structure—a four day tournament, one day competition, a T20 competition, we have club cricket and school cricket. We have also launched the Afghanistan Premier League (APL) where some of the big names in the game will compete alongside our local players,” he adds.
They were awarded ODI status in 2009 and then Test status in 2017—the ultimate pride for a cricketing nation to get admitted to the most prestigious format of the game.
In fact it was during Taliban regime that cricket was accepted as an official sport by establishing Afghanistan Cricket Federation, affiliated to the country’s National Olympic Committee and 23-years later cricket is a subject in school curriculum that everyone must study.
“I am not sure about the number of teams that play in school system but in all of the 34 provinces cricket is being played,” said Hamkar. “But the most important thing is that cricket is now included in the school curriculum. It’s a book. The laws of cricket and everything about cricket is taught at school. This is the extent which we have gone to improve the standard of cricket in our country.”
Afghanistan Cricket Board was formed as an independent body in 2010—year after they won the ODI status and since then a professional structure has been put in place to take the game to the next level. Five years later they were in the World Cup.
“We realized the importance of having these proper structures in place in order to be a competitive side because all other teams come with high preparations. Most of the other countries play better domestic cricket than us. So we decided to improve our domestic cricket structure, because we do not want to be like the Kenyans,” he explains.
In addition to the widely patronage school cricket tournament and age group tournaments, country’s domestic set up also see a provincial cricket tournament where 32 out of the 34 provinces are actively involved, club cricket tournament and a first class tournament of six regional teams.
“Kenyans were a very good team at one stage but due to their poor domestic structure, they are no longer a competitive side in the world. This was in our mind when we designed our domestic structure. If you look at the team now there are enough guys on the bench to replace the seniors at any given time. One thing I must say is that all those in the ACB, the president’s, the CEO and everyone else working their only work for the love of the game not just for the salary. But the credit should go to the national team, they have executed ACB’s plans very well to be in this situation,” Hamkar explains.
According to Hamkar, cricket is now a craze in Afghanistan. On a weekend, street cricket is being played all over the country that it makes it impossible for someone to walk on the street—such is the passion exits in the country.
“The good thing is in Afghanistan, both government and anti-government forces support cricket,” he adds. “We have no problem with anti-government forces as they like cricket. Of course it’s challenging to live in such environments but if you are involved in cricket, you are safe.”
But still the national team does travel elsewhere for trainings. They have two grounds in India and one in Sharjah considered as their home grounds which they used for national training. Beside the team travels well ahead of a tour to the touring country for training in order to be better prepared for the conditions. Afghans arrived 15-days prior to the commencement of the Asia Cup and what they have so far achieved in the tournament is incredible.
“Due to security situations in the country head coach (Phil Symonds) doesn’t want to come there but we have other coaches who are based in Afghanistan. As I said before everyone love cricket and if you are connected to cricket you are safe anywhere you travel in the country,” he explains. “But the national team trains mostly away from home because of the facilities.”
Hamkar who has been the team manager for the last three years also hints at impressive performance in the longer format—even though they had a disastrous debut with an inning and 262 run defeat at the hands of the Indians.
“When you play your first ever Test match, you are definitely under pressure but you will see the difference as we progress. We will be a complete test nation with time,” he added.
Unlike before, Afghan players now get a monthly retainer not exceeding US$ 3500 a month in addition to match fees and other allowance, something Nabi and them never had when they started playing the game.
“The player’s names should be really written in gold in the history books for the struggle they have gone through to bring the game to this level. There had been many times that they had to a share packet of chips to quench their hunger,” manager added.
Having won both their first round matches, Afghanistan have shown their potential to go the distance but their fate in the tournament cannot be ascertain as of now but one thing is clear Afghanistan is no longer a pushover.