Afghanistan’s struggle to get to the 2019 World Cup is a bloody one

The Afghanistan cricket team. Photo: Instagram

A year ago, eight were killed and 45 injured in a series of explosions that targeted a cricket match in the Afghan city of Jalalabad. The blasts erupted among civilians as they watched the Ramadan Cup at a local cricket stadium. Prior to that, in September 2017, a suicide bombing at a cricket match in the capital city of Kabul left three dead and five injured.

These are just two incidents of violence among several unreported ones that continue to disrupt life in the landlocked country even 18 years after the fall of the Taliban regime. The Taliban had banned sports because it considered it a distraction from religious activities. In fact, for several years, the Islamist group staged public executions at Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium.

The exodus to Pakistan

For several years, thousands of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan’s Peshawar, where they embraced cricket — a sport that was a religion in the neighbouring country ever since Britain’s colonisation of the sub-continent. When the Taliban regime ended in early 2000s, and the refugees returned home, the war-torn country took solace in cricket, which became a source of happiness and peace.

Premier all-rounder of the Afghanistan cricket team, 33-year-old Mohammed Nabi, was one of those refugees who learnt cricket in Pakistan. In one of his media interactions, the Sunrisers Hyderabad cricketer recalled his days as a refugee.

“We were refugees in Peshawar from 1994 to 96, during the Civil War. We started going to school there. We played cricket there because everyone was playing cricket in school and on the streets. That’s how I fell in love with cricket.”

But the end of the Taliban rule did not mean an end to poverty and civil wars, which rock the country till date. In 2017, pacer Shapoor Zadran survived a shooting as he drove home. Nabi, who was the captain of the Afghanistan team at the time, had his father abducted for two months for an AU$2m ransom in 2013.

Dearth of resources, but no lack of passion

  • India’s support in Afghanistan’s progress
    • The BCCI gave Afghanistan’s a ‘home ground’ is Noida and Dehradun. Last year, the team played a bilateral series with Bangladesh in the picturesque Uttarakhand city.
    • India has also made huge financial contributions to the construction of the Kandahar International Stadium.
    • Most recently, Indian dairy company Amul offered to be the official sponsors of Afghanistan for the cricket World Cup.

Faridullah Shah, a Pakistan Cricket Board-accredited coach, in an interview with The Hindu, recalled how determination in the Afghan players eclipsed their shortcomings.

“They used to work as labourers until the afternoon and were later playing cricket here… The team of Afghan players was named the ‘Team of Chickens’ as many were trying to survive by supplying poultry in Peshawar. They had extreme eagerness — more than our players — and that was the reason for their success.”

Afghanistan is not likely to play international cricket at home in the near future, owing to lack of infrastructure and hostility. But its inhabitants take comfort from the performances of their superstars across domestic and international games around the world. The Afghanistan national cricket team, especially two of their biggest stars — Nabi and Rashid Khan — are the balm Afghans need to soothe their pain.

What does the 2019 World Cup hold for Afghanistan?

  • Afghanistan’s World Cup squad
    • Gulbadin Naib (C), Mohammad Shahzad, Noor Ali Zadran, Hazratullah Zazai, Rahmat Shah, Asghar Afghan, Hashmatullah Shahidi, Najibullah Zadran, Samiullah Shinwari, Mohammad Nabi, Rashid Khan, Dawlat Zadran, Aftab Alam, Hamid Hassan and Mujeeb ur Rahman.

Afghanistan open their 2019 World Cup campaign on June 1 against Australia in Bristol. The dark horse got the better of Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup last year and also drew a match with India, and that explains why you simply cannot rule them out of the competition.

Rashid Khan, the World’s No. 1 bowler on the ICC rankings, can make the best of batsmen dance to his tunes, and we have seen enough evidence of the same in the Big Bash League and the Indian Premier League. Their rise is a reminder that passion and persistence can beat the biggest odds in life.