Afghanistan’s cricket miracle

2013-10-19 00:00

IN England it will be that of the “glorious defence of the Ashes” notwithstanding the less-than-average class of Australia. Despite their team having won the Champion’s trophy that was held earlier this year in England, the Indians will look no further than the impending retirement of Sachin Tendulkar, the long-serving demigod of sub-continental cricket.

In South Africa, we will look past the shambles of this week’s Test and recall with pride our pace attack’s performance in dispatching the batsmen of New Zealand and Pakistan for fewer than 50 runs — the third occasion in less than 15 months that they had done so to a Test team.

More informed and less subjective commentators, however, will have noticed that, in an elimination game for a spot in the 2016 World Cup, the cricketers of Afghanistan defeated Kenya.

Some readers will recall that in 2003, amid the political and logistical chaos of the only cricket World Cup that South Africa may be allowed to host, Kenya reached the semi-finals where they were defeated by Pakistan. This is written not to illustrate how far Kenya has fallen, but rather to put it into perspective the splendid achievement of the Afghans. To my mind this is cricket’s story of the year, if not the game’s biggest and most heart-warming tale since World War 2.

Cricket was not played in Afghanistan until the mid-nineties. This is some 15 years after the launch of the South African Cricket Union’s programme to take cricket into the townships.

The first match played by the Afghan national team in those fraught days, which have continued unabated ever since, took place against a scratch security team in the National Stadium which had recently been used by the Taliban for mass executions.

Cricket in that unlucky country is the stepchild of the horrors and bloodshed of war. It was not the beneficiary of any development programme with its free handouts of kit plus zillions of oranges and biscuits. It grew its teeth on the dirt tracks of the Afghanistan refugee camps that sprung up in Pakistan in the aftermath of what has become known in the U.S. as Charlie Wilson’s war against the Soviet Union. Ironically, the Americans, who themselves are now at war with a segment of Afghanistan, have contributed substantially to the welfare of cricket in that country.

These Afghan children of war, who were inspired by the occasional glimpses of cricket on satellite television, played with wooden planks for bats and tape balls on the rough ground of the camps. Their extraordinary story has been captured by Tim Albone in his book Out of the Ashes and in a remarkable film of the same name, both of which recount Afghanistan’s successful effort to get to the 2010 T20 World Cup.

The good news is that the story has continued with increased momentum and now the team can look forward to the next World Cup of the longer variety. It has been a difficult journey plagued by financial and logistical problems of a kind not experienced by any of the other participants in world cricket.

Five years ago, the treasurer of Afghan cricket, Taj Malik, went to the Kabul branch of Standard Charter in search of funds that he had been led to believe were accumulating in that bank. This is a bank that is still surrounded by barbed wire and concrete walls. Over-looked by troops wielding machine guns, it is described by Standard Charter as its most dangerous branch in the world. To his dismay, Taj Malik found that their bank account had been emptied of its funds. Afghan cricket had no money. The good news was that they were not in debt. This is all about to change. Now that the team has qualified for the world cup, they will receive $1 million (around R10 million) as a fee for their preparation, a grant of $425 000 in terms of the ICC’s Targeted Performance Programme and a further $750 000 from ICC’s development funding policy.

The cricketers are mainly from the same Pashtun tribe that has bred famous Pakistani players such as Wasim Akrim. They are lacking in neither passion nor aggression. The Afghans play with a confidence that belies their brief history in the game. The interest in cricket throughout the country is so great that it is one of the few “Western” activities to have received the blessing of the Taliban. The Americans have funded a new cricket stadium and the present team is a good one. Their success in getting to the world cup guarantees that interest in cricket will gather force for the next two years at least.

After that, the hard part will be to maintain Afghan’s upward trajectory. It is this task that has proven to be beyond Kenya, Ireland, Scotland and the other minor countries that have dined briefly at cricket’s top table. This is where the big boys need to come to Afghan’s cricket party. Countries like South Africa must take notice of this remarkable story that began on the stoniest of grounds, and help to nurture its growth.

There is a huge Afghan population in the United Arab Emirates that would support the visit of a South African “A” team. Invitations to play in SA against our own younger players would be welcome. This is an opportunity for SA to extend a hand to cricketers who have never known anything but adversity

There may even be lessons to learn from the Afghans. Millions have been squandered by CSA in its search for black cricketers. The game has yet to fire in most of our disadvantaged communities. But those where there are distinct seeds of promise have shared funding with communities who have been force-fed the game to little avail.

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